‘The destruction is unbelievable. In the worst areas, it looks like a bomb went off. Homes are just flattened."

"The mold is everywhere. It’s scary, and we must wear masks."

"You could tell that the water had completely engulfed this house. This house included rotted, falling down ceiling tiles and insulation."

"Everything was covered in six-week-old mud. It really defies description. It makes you realize that our possessions are meaningless in the end."

They read like letters from a war zone and they are indeed letters from the front, not from a battlefield of war, but from the front lines of the Gulf Coast areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. These missives, written by Tom and Tracey Gates, were posted on the website of the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville so that the congregation could keep up with their volunteer mission into the heart of the flood zone. The Gates were members of a volunteer team sent by the church to the Gulfport/Biloxi Mississippi area as part of a larger effort of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, a national organization.

In addition to Gates, a Princeton-based mortgage broker, and his wife, the team included Bruce McGraw (retired superintendent of Lawrence schools), Rick van den Heuvel (a retired prison official), Victor Murray (of CRESA Partners, a tenant representation firm at 501 Forrestal Road), Rose Chan, and Lisa Zelanak.

The team left New Jersey in mid-October and spent more than a week in a tent village set up for volunteers at the Orange Grove Presbyterian Church in Gulfport. "We basically lived on energy bars and drank water," recalls Gates. "We used outhouses and slept on squeaky cots. We had outdoor showers with no hot water. It would have been so much easier and cleaner to write that check to help out. But this gave me the perfect opportunity to fulfill this need that I have to give back."

As primitive as the living conditions were, the team from the Lawrenceville church knew that they would be returning to their clean and comfortable homes once their mission was complete. It was quite a different story for the families they were sent to help. One of those families was the Thorntons, a couple, Pat and Rose in their 60s, their daughter and her 13-year-old son.

"It was awful to see the absolutely desolate looks on their faces when we pulled up in front of their house," says Gates. "These people were sitting on the front stoop. From the street, it looked like their house had been all boarded up. From the inside it looked like it had been in a blender, carpet just soaking wet, everything upside down, walls covered with mold, furniture toppled, the refrigerator face down with rotting food on the shelves all stinky."

Gates, a vice-president at Arlington Capital Mortgage at 33 Witherspoon Street, is in the residential mortgage loan business and is accustomed to helping people get into their homes and acquire their piece of the American dream. He says it was devastating to see how that dream came crashing down, in some cases, quite literally, for many of the people in Katrina’s angry path.

"Homes are at the heart of what I do," says Gates. "I see that my clients are secure in their homes. The Gulf Coast is anything but secure. Seeing the devastation firsthand and meeting these folks who are so far from secure has given me a firm appreciation for what secure really means. Their need for hope spoke to me deeply."

Gates, his wife, and the rest of the Lawrenceville team dug right in, and over the course of their stay, did some of the hardest physical work they had ever done, pushing themselves to the wall both mentally and physically. "We had these incredible second, third and fourth winds that carried us through some heavy duty labor, nothing like our daily lives in New Jersey. The adrenaline must have come from doing God’s work for those in dire need. It has been a powerful lesson for all of us."

Gates says that one revelation that was especially gratifying to him was that even after 18 wonderful years of marriage, he saw a new and different side of his wife to appreciate. "For her it was a breakthrough, a watershed, the realization that hey, I can sit on the floor and pull up nails. Every one of us found new strengths and pushed new boundaries."

The Thorntons’ home in Biloxi, Mississippi, was just one of three houses they worked on. The following is another entry Gates wrote for the church website about their work with the family.

"We left the house stripped to the studs, really drying for the first time in six weeks. The mold is still everywhere, but that can be treated, and rebuilding can commence. We cleaned up the yard of debris, cut down some trees, and placed the shed back on its block foundation. It had floated about 10 feet away. The family went from such despair when we started, to showing a glimmer of hope when we left. They hugged us all. They thanked us profusely, asked to stay in touch, and said that they will be praying for us!"

Members understood that this first trip was step one of many more steps to get the region back on its feet and its residents back to a semblance of normality. "We’re going to go back and stop in and see these people, see if we can connect again," explains Gates. Another family with whom the team made a connection was the Fountain family. Here’s how Tom described the experience of working on their house.

"The team started on this home Wednesday morning and we finished it today at 1 p.m. All the walls are stripped to the studs and all the floor boards were pulled up. The lovely owner, Mr. Fountain, worked with us the whole time. He lost everything."

"We then went to his neighbor’s house. The owner is an elderly woman, who is away with family. Her son-in-law worked with us. It was horrible. We threw out all the clothes and kitchen items. We are COMPLETELY emptying the contents of their homes and piling it on the curb where front end loaders come by every so often and take it away. The Red Cross drives around twice a day and feeds all the workers. Everyone is so appreciative. We have met some terrific college


"The camp has folks from Georgia, New Mexico, and Virginia, in addition to New Jersey, total about 30. On Friday the number swells to 90. The ‘Village’ is a great experience itself. Since we are all people of faith here for a common cause, we have bonded very quickly. Each night we swap stories from the day, eat together, and laugh. Humor is a constant as in "How big was your biggest cockroach sighting today?"

The Gates and the other volunteers had to jump through some financial and logistical hoops before heading out to the Gulf area. Even though the church sponsored the trip and picked up some of thecosts, each participant still had to spend about $500 out-of-pocket. Tom and Tracey, Pennington residents, left their two children in the care of family and friends while they were away. Their son is a junior at the Hun School of Princeton, and their daughter, 13, is a student at Timberlane Middle School in Hopewell.

"It truly takes a village to go to Mississippi," laughs Gates, recounting that uncles, aunts, grandparents, church members, and a field hockey coach were all called in to help with child care duty during their absence. "It would have been much easier for one of us to go and the other to manage the household, but we felt a strong desire to experience this trip together. And both our kids were very supportive of our wish to do mission work together." Gates says it was also an extremely valuable lesson for their children to learn the spirit of volunteerism by observing what their parents were doing. "We try to set the right example in our behavior, attitudes, and how we treat others. They were proud of what mom and dad did. I’m hoping some of that rubs off and they’ll continue the life of giving they’ve seen us involve ourselves with."

Gates and his family have been affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville since 1993, serving as liturgists, participating in the worship services, and Bible readings. The children have also been active in the youth programs. His life of volunteerism, says Gates, started in his own childhood, thanks to his parents, who taught him the value of giving back. He grew up going to the Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton and is a Princeton native, born at the Princeton Medical Center. His parents – Moore (formerly an investment advisor with U.S. Trust, now president of a medical foundation) and Audrey (a faithful hospital volunteer) – still live in the house on Hun Road in Princeton that they bought in 1963.

He attended Princeton Day School, graduating in 1978, and then going to the University of Vermont in Burlington where he earned a B.A. in mass communications. He notes that he was no stranger to hard work when he went to the flood zone, having spent several summers of his youth doing manual labor, digging ditches in Laguna Beach, California, and working as a bellhop at the Keystone Lodge in Keystone, Colorado. He spent time in Boston working with Xerox and in sales with the Systems Group, Inc. before moving back to Princeton and joining Arlington Capital in 1993 as a private mortgage banker. One of his responsibilities as a vice-president is directing the marketing and training initiatives for the sales and operations staff.

He serves on the board of trustees of the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, is a former member of the board of trustees of Princeton Day School and Pretty Brook Tennis Club, and served as president of the alumni association of Princeton Day School.

When he’s not working or volunteering Gates has another pursuit about which he is passionate – acting. He and his daughter Sheridan recently performed with Playful Theater Productions in "Fiddler on the Roof," "Damn Yankees," and "Annie." Tracey formerly worked in sales for Proctor and Gamble and GF Furniture Systems and has been a full-time mom since their son was born in 1989. She volunteers for SAVE and Trinity Counseling Service and is also president of Stony Brook Garden Club, a family tradition since the members also include her sister-in-law, her mother-in-law, as well as her late grandmother-in-law.

There is still much work to be done in the Hurricane Katrina ravaged areas of the south and the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville intends to remain actively involved. In fact, Gates is one of 11 volunteers, many of them veterans of the October trip, who have signed up for a one-week return visit to the flood zone in January. "What we did in October was a great start but it feels like it was five minutes ago. I can’t wait to go back. We can’t forget about these people. I have a strong sense that this work is ongoing. The key is to make sure that we keep it up. We can’t forget about these poor folks and their suffering." Gates says that while he’s always wanted to volunteer for church work abroad, it’s never quite been the right time, place or opportunity, so in a way, he’s grateful that the Katrina work has given him a new focus for his volunteerism.

"We have a sister church in Haiti and while I’ve always felt a pull to help there, it was always just a little bit too dangerous and I’ve never had the nerve as the father of young kids to take that risk. I believe that we’re all designed to give and for most of us it’s a question of when in life we deal with that spiritual push or prod. This is the right time now."

Gates says working with the victims of Katrina has given him a new resolve to complain less and to appreciate more of the good fortune and good health and safety from natural disasters with which he’s been blessed. Even more importantly, it’s given him perspective to better deal with the tribulations of every day life. "So what if a loan doesn’t close on time. If I have a client who gets all in a knot with me I look at a little differently now. In the scheme of things I’ll have more patience and understanding about what is and isn’t important in this world."

"We are, now that we know we are finished with the hard labor, exhausted. It is intense physical work, but probably the most worthwhile experience of our lives. Nothing feels better than helping others."

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