Who Is My Neighbor?

The Story of Eight Days of Hope

 

words by: Nic Stoltzfus

 

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“…so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”

– Luke 10:29b –

Steve Tybor looked out his window at the magnolia trees swaying in the wind. It was windier than a normal hot August breeze—this was hurricane wind. Fortunately for Steve, he lived in northern Mississippi in the town of Tupelo 300 miles north of the Gulf Coast, where tornadoes were more of a risk than hurricanes. But down in New Orleans and coastal Mississippi? They were experiencing the storm of the century. Steve turned back to the TV, where reports of the devastation were flowing in from live streams of the news choppers hovering over the city. Hurricane Katrina had busted the levees in New Orleans and wiped smaller towns off the map.

Steve was on the phone with his father, who lived up in Buffalo, New York. Steve’s father told him that they needed to find a way to help the folks who had lost their homes because of the hurricane. “Steve let’s go find somebody, anyone to help. Let’s find a widow, maybe an elderly couple, a single mom, someone who doesn’t have a lot of means, and let’s go help rebuild a house for free.”

As more news came in the days following the storm, the actual toll of the devastation became clearer. The eye of Hurricane Katrina—where the most damage took place—went right through the town of Waveland, Mississippi, which is around sixty miles east of New Orleans. Waveland is a small town on the edge of Bay St. Louis with just under 7,000 residents. With winds of up to 175 miles an hour—enough to topple trees, flip mobile homes, and cause significant roof damage—and a storm surge of over twenty-five feet, the coastal community of Waveland was obliterated. Fifty people died, the bridge across the bay was destroyed, and all the houses along the entire seven-mile stretch of beach in Hancock County were leveled. The damage was immense and, for residents trying to reassemble their lives after the catastrophic loss, any form of repair looked utterly hopeless. 

Steve had lived in Tupelo since 1999, and he knew that, after large hurricanes, plenty of assistance went to large cities like New Orleans. But he was worried about the smaller towns like Waveland that may get forgotten. That’s where he would go to help rebuild houses: Waveland, Mississippi. 

Steve managed to get a slot on America Family Radio and shared his plan to rebuild houses and invited listeners to come to Waveland and help rebuild houses. The response was overwhelming: nearly 700 people from all over the nation signed up to help Steve rebuild houses after the storm. When it came time for the service project, Steve, his wife, and their three children drove down to Waveland for their week of volunteering. He was shocked at what he saw—it was one thing seeing the wreckage on TV, it was another thing seeing it in person: “I saw miles from the shoreline; it looked like a bomb had dropped. There was no power, no electricity, no cell phone towers. No laundry facilities, no bathrooms that worked.” 

For Steve, this is what Christianity is supposed to look like: helping neighbors in need. “When a family wakes up and they’re doing all the right things in life; they work hard, they pay their taxes, they’re doing the best they can to thrive in their marriage, to raise kids. And then a tornado comes through—no fault of their own—or a hurricane or flooding. And…they just lost everything that they’ve ever worked for. Then…strangers you’ve never met from around the country show up. They either knock on your RV, because that’s where you’re living, or they call you on your phone. And they say, ‘hey, you don’t know me, but I’m here to help you. I believe that you have a huge need, and we want to be a part of the solution.’ 

“The greatest sermon I’ve ever heard is the one I saw. We as believers, we are excited to share biblical truth, a scripture verse, a word of constructive criticism and yet sometimes people come to know Jesus because a scripture verse isn’t even mentioned.”

Over the course of eight days, Steve and 683 other volunteers worked tirelessly to rebuild homes in Waveland and in the surrounding Bay St. Louis region. Eight days later, they had rebuilt eighty-four homes. What started as a simple phone call between a father and a son blossomed into providing homes and safe place to live for people in need. 

After their time volunteering in the Bay St. Louis area, Steve and his wife and three children headed back to Tupelo. Steve was driving and looked out his window at the devastation that remained. “I’ll never forget. I was leaving Bay St. Louis…and I still saw boats and trees. And I saw a little girl’s doll hanging on the side of the road. That belonged to a little girl just a couple of months earlier, living in the safety of her own home. And as I drove, I wept. I wept non-stop. And I thought to myself, ‘Who am I? I am just one person. But I just met 683 other people who love the Lord and love the broken-hearted. So let’s not recreate the wheel. If people are passionate about serving, let’s find a way where we can go back and serve again.”

The Founding of Eight Days of Hope

In 2006, a year after Hurricane Katrina, Steve Tybor and others started Eight Days of Hope. Steve says, “God wants us to serve and love the broken-hearted. And that’s what Eight Days of Hope (EDOH) tries to do, and we hope that one day when we’ve run the race, we can step back and say, ‘You know, I don’t know if I’ve changed the world, but I hope that one day that I served in Alabama or Mississippi or Illinois, those families that we served saw Jesus.’” 

Based out of Tupelo, Mississippi, Eight Days of Hope is a Christian, nonprofit organization that exists to love and serve those in need. Since its founding 15 years ago, over 41,000 volunteers have signed up to help nearly 7,000 families who have been affected by major disasters across the United States. 

Steve Tybor explains how this works. “We bring in thousands of volunteers, some skilled, some less-skilled, and we bring them to an area, and we rebuild as many homes as we can and touch as many families as we can over an eight-day span. You know, the number eight in the Bible means new beginnings. And our hope and goal is that on the eighth day, when we leave, when we give somebody back the keys to their house or we see the smile on their face or realize that we were their first glimpse of hope in months since the disaster happened.”

Chad Stutzman, who is on the board of directors for Eight Days of Hope, elaborates further on the idea of placing people first. “It’s more than just the work. These people are devastated. They’re hopeless. They don’t know where to start. You can bring hope and healing, so we really try to focus on the people as much as the project. We try to pray with them, listen to them, ask about their story, ask about their life. Those kinds of things. We eat right there on-site, sitting down and talking to them. The whole community knows that we’re there to love and serve.”

Stutzman, who serves as pastor at Grace Church in Holmes County, Ohio, understands the value of faith in action. “Everything is focused on showing the love of Jesus. Even how the trips are structured—there’s worship every night. So for our volunteers who gather, we have a time of worship and a devotion or a teaching every night when we’re there. In the morning, there’s time of worship and a prayer time. There’s a short devotional time. We are pouring into the volunteers, and then the volunteers go out and pour into the community. And so, when you get to a job site, the first thing we do is we gather in a circle and we pray. And we invite the homeowner / the family / whoever we’re serving to join us. And we pray for them.”

Response After Hurricane Harvey

A great example of how the Eight Days of Hope disaster response works is how they mobilized in Houston, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey struck in August 2017. Harvey was just as damaging and costly as Hurricane Katrina and caused widespread flooding in the city of Houston. According to the Texas Department of Safety, more than 185,000 homes were damaged, and over 9,000 homes were destroyed. Within days of the disaster, funds began pouring into EDOH to help with relief efforts. It took months of planning and coordination to prepare everything for the disaster response. In October of 2018, EDOH scheduled three eight-day trips. Steve reflects on this trip, “Over those three eight-day periods, over 6,000 people showed up and helped 1,108 families rebuild their homes for free. $15 million of work was done.” One woman who lost her house to flooding and had her house rebuilt by Eight Days of Hope was overcome with the compassion of the volunteers. Overcome with emotion, she said, “They’re helping us rebuild our home…but they’ve rebuilt our hearts.”

Like their other disaster responses, Eight Days of Hope partnered with a local organization that helped connect them with local resources. In this case, the organization was 4B Disaster Response Network, a coalition of churches in the Houston area founded to help their community after major disasters. In addition, they also partnered with the Houston Astros to rebuild eight local baseball fields in the town of Dickinson, located between Houston and Galveston Bay. Steve explains, “Not only did they lose their homes, but their kids—as they start to rebuild—they had no place to play ball.” While EDOH volunteers rebuilt the fences, concessions stands, and other structures, the Astros Foundation rebuilt the fields. And, on the last day of the final trip, the Dickinson Little League invited Eight Days of Hope volunteers to throw the opening pitch of the start of the season. 

Steve knows that God is at work in moments like this. “I’ve seen for fifteen years that God opens some amazing doors. I tell the volunteers: be ready with your God-sized stories on the mission field. When you serve with Eight Days of Hope, you go home changed. You might be exhausted, but your heart is going to be full because you’ve seen God move time and time again. I tell volunteers, ‘You’re impacting the families we’re serving, but when you leave, you’ll be impacted forever, as well.’”

Finding New Ways to Help A Neighbor in Need

Nearly a decade after Hurricane Katrina, disaster struck closer to home. On April 28, 2014, an EF3 tornado rushed through Tupelo, destroying over 300 homes and businesses. Steve walked through the streets of the town minutes after the tornado left to survey the wreckage. “I saw people as they walked around in a daze or in tears, realizing that…their home was destroyed or loved ones were hurt.” After the clean-up, Steve and others on the leadership team reflected on how Eight Days of Hope operated after a disaster, and they realized that there was an opportunity to change their model. By watching how their community in Tupelo responded after the tornado strike, the EDOH leadership team realized that the first week following a disaster is a critical window of opportunity. In talks with the team, Steve said, “Why do we wait months to come back and rebuild homes? Let’s talk about responding right away.” It was out of this experience that Eight Days of Hope Rapid Response was born. 

The primary goal of the Rapid Response team is “to show the Love of Jesus Christ to disaster victims 48-72 hours after a disaster strikes anywhere in the contiguous 48 states. The means of meeting this goal will be through clearing debris, tarping roofs, gutting water-damaged homes, and salvaging personal property. These are the most basic immediate actions necessary to preserve property and livelihood.” To date, EDOH has responded to over 30 disasters with its Rapid Response teams. 

Eight Days of Hope continues to innovate. In 2015, Julie Palmer, the founder of People Against Trafficking Humans, a faith-based organization that seeks to end human trafficking, approached Steve with an idea. Julie said, “Steve, I love what you do. You go once or twice for eight days at a time, and you rebuild hundreds of homes. Have you ever thought about helping out organizations like us to provide help for those suffering from sex trafficking?” She explained that there were opportunities for skilled craftsmen to help—why couldn’t the volunteers with Eight Days of Hope who helped rebuild homes after a disaster help to build safe houses for victims of sex trafficking?

Julie’s idea resonated with Steve, as he had recently become aware of the dangers of sex trafficking. At the time, Steve and his wife were in the middle of adopting two girls from an orphanage in Taiwan. During the adoption process, Steve learned more about the dangers of sex trafficking for orphaned children in Taiwan. As he researched further, he realized this difficult issue extended to the United States, as well: sex trafficking was a real problem across the nation. Steve realized Julie was right: this was a real opportunity for EDOH volunteers to love and serve those in need. 

Steve presented the idea to the Eight Days of Hope board, and the Safe House program was started. In this program, EDOH volunteers help build and renovate homes where survivors of sex trafficking can be safe and free to start a new life. EDOH partners with ministries that help victims of sex trafficking and offer help with renovation or new construction projects.

One example of how this program works is the work that Eight Days of Hope volunteers did at the Refuge Ranch in Austin, Texas. Refuge Ranch is a residential community for minor girls through age 19 who are victims of sex trafficking; it is the largest long-term live-in rehabilitation facility for child survivors of sex trafficking. The ranch has many different therapy programs for the young women who live there, and one program that Refuge Ranch wanted to start was an equine therapy program. However, they needed help building the facilities. This is where Eight Days of Hope volunteers stepped in. Over eleven days, the volunteers worked to build an Equine Therapy Center at the Refuge Ranch. They built a large arena, a round pen, six stables, a tack room, a hayloft, an office for the program coordinator, and a classroom. 

Now that the Equine Therapy Center is finished, horses will be brought to the facility for equine therapy work. Refuge Ranch sees this as being a benefit for the girls who live at the ranch: “The horses at Refuge Ranch act as a bridge, helping each girl reconnect both to themselves and those around them.”

A Return to Waveland & Bay St. Louis

It was at the tail end of the 2020 hurricane season—a week before November—when Hurricane Zeta hit Waveland. Eight Days of Hope mobilized their disaster response team and came down to help. Steve Tybor knew he wanted to go. This trip was symbolic: fifteen years ago was when he had first served in Waveland after Hurricane Katrina. Like his first trip, Steve served as a leader of the mission trip. He thought about how different this mission trip was from his first one: “If you told me fifteen years ago that we’d be back in Bay St. Louis, that we wouldn’t have three leaders, but that we’d have 181 leaders, that God would provide millions of dollars of equipment so that we could serve at a moment’s notice, that 41,000 volunteers would have traveled the country with this ministry that was meant to be a one-time trip, I would say, ‘You’re crazy! There’s no way in the world that could ever happen because that’s not the plan.’ That wasn’t our plan. That was His plan.”

The disaster response team was in Waveland & Bay St. Louis in late December, and the volunteers took time on New Year’s Eve to celebrate the ending of 2020 and the beginning of a new year. That night, the group went down to the beach for a time of worship. Steve said, “All of our volunteers came down to worship on the beach. On New Year’s Eve, as people were blowing off fireworks from across the bay, we were just worshipping to our God in heaven.”

In that moment, Steve realized that his heart was full. “I knew I was right where God wanted me to be.” He thought back to that one phone call that changed his life forever. A simple thought from a father saying to his son, “Let’s go help somebody out. Let’s go do something good.”

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How Can I Pray for Eight Days of Hope?

Steve: Pray for wisdom, that we remain humble, keep it all about Jesus, as we move forward, and for more partners and new volunteers to fall in love with what God is doing. 

The ministry has quadrupled in size in the last four years and so as we have a northeast satellite in New York and a Midwest satellite in Iowa; as we look to go out West in a couple of years to help families after the fires and mudslides, continue to pray for the leadership. We want to be men and women of integrity. We want to be a reflection of Jesus. 

We’re always looking for new partners to come alongside. If you are a business or a church and you’re looking to tie into a ministry that you can trust…we’re a safe ministry to partner with. Pray for more partners to be connected with Eight Days of Hope.

For more information on how to volunteer with Eight Days of Hope or to make a donation, you can reach out to them in these ways:

Eight Days of Hope

P.O. Box 3208, Tupelo, MS 38803

662-844-6934    //    info@eightdaysofhope.com

 

 

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Nic Stoltzfus is the editorial director of Plain Values magazine.
He is the author of four books, including “German Lutherans to
Pennsylvania Amish: The Stoltzfus Family Story” (Masthof Press).

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