Byron Pitts is National Correspondent for CBS News.
After Hurricane Katrina, it's become sport to criticize FEMA and other federal agencies for what DOES NOT get done immediately after a disaster and the months that follow. Trust me, much of the criticism has been fair, but not enough attention has been paid to those who are actually doing the bulk of the heavy lighting: Faith based groups. And so that's what we attempt to do in tonight's "American Spirit" on The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.
Spend anytime in the Gulf Coast or any of those places hit recently by deadly tornadoes and you'll see what we saw in Lake Mack, Fl. There are countless faith-based groups around the country doing "God's work." We profiled one.
A.C.T.S. (which stands for Active Community Team Services) is a Christian non-profit organization that responds to disasters around the country. David Canther founded ACTS three years ago in Florida. He's a former pastor who decided to leave the pulpit and continue his 'faith walk' where people are in need. ACTS has about 12-thousand volunteers nationwide. Most are students from private and Christian high schools and colleges. They volunteer their time. All receive training in "disaster response."
Hours after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, ACTS hit the ground. "There were trees all over the main highways and we cut our way in," says David Canther. "Man we were determined. It was all thought the night. It took us five hours to go five miles."
"Five hours" turned into nine months. In that time ACTS served nearly 500,000 hot meals and distributed more than $23 million in donated goods.
Canther believes it's important to feed survivors' emotional needs, as well as their physical needs. His teams also brings in tents and concert stages, so people have a place to gather. A place to eat, and and share fellowship and, if need be, grieve. ACTS took note that often-times after a natural disaster (tornado, hurricane, etc) communities are left days and sometimes weeks without electricity. So kids can't listen to music or watch TV for example. ACTS brings in live music and provides games. In places where churches and houses of worship have been destroyed, ACTS puts up tents and allows for religious services.
One of the biggest things people talk about when asked about ACTS is how they pay attention to the small details. It's hard to explain how good a hot slice of pizza, a folding chair and a good old hymn can warm the soul when you've just lost everything you own. But the people at ACTS get it. And thousand of families have been the beneficiary.
We profiled ACTS, but there are countless other groups doing similar work in places in need. For all that goes wrong during and after disasters, the works of these faith based groups is simply inspiring. These are not your father's fish fry, bake sale efforts. These churches and organizations come in with highly trained and skilled volunteers (many of them with professional backgrounds: doctors, engineers, former military) who are both passionate and proficient. Their equipment is usually top rate. While government regulations limit the hours FEMA employees can put in. These volunteers can often "just go" til the job gets done.
Certainly they're not a replacement for the important work the federal, state and local governments can and must do. But these groups are "standing in the gap." Their only pay is often a teary eyed "thank you" or a hug. You may not be able to take that to the grocery store, but it seems to sustain the soul of those who give of their talent and their time.