Bringing Katrina victims to the table

Sitting around the dinner table every night with your family may seem about as routine as can be, but for Jim Moose and others in rural western Pennsylvania, it represents a significant partnership with the needs of nearly 200 homeowners displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Moose has been a furniture designer, builder and woodworking teacher for 16 years. He also heads up the Western PA Table Project, a mission project of the New Wilmington Presbyterian Church in New Wilmington, Pa.

Moose and a large group of volunteers build dining tables and benches in small homes and professional shops to assist national recovery efforts for Katrina survivors, which hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005. The project leader also has five high schools participating in the program; a number he hopes will increase to 20 by September.

“There are a lot of things you need in a house to live on,” says Moose. “You need a mattress, dressers are nice, etc. But a table and something to sit on around that table does a heck of a lot toward bringing a family back together.”

The number of families in Louisiana and Mississippi displaced by Katrina remains in excess of 20,000, and most of them are the working and retired poor, according to the project’s Web site. Recovery organizations offer volunteer labor for rebuilding, but the homeowners are responsible for purchasing materials. There is little left for basic necessities, much less furniture.

“At our first organizational meeting, we had 75 people show up from about 15 to 20 different churches,” explains Moose. “We started in March [2008] and in July of last year we delivered 100 tables to New Orleans for distribution through five or six faith-based recovery groups.”

The original table had a trestle-type design, but Moose switched to building a simpler Shaker-leg table to involve more of the inexperienced volunteers.

“We’re in the process of producing the second 100 tables and benches right now,” says Moose. “The tables are 32" x 60" and you can comfortably get six around it; uncomfortably eight around it. The benches are 60" long and 12" wide. One of the problems we had was trying to find a design that was generic enough to help a lot of people. The houses we were going to in New Orleans were fairly small.”

The tables are built from No. 1 Common red oak, which Moose is able to obtain for about $0.95/bf. Lowe’s has provided all of the finishing products and accessories at cost.

“I try to keep getting into people’s minds what it means to lose everything. How do you get people to understand that all that’s left is the frame of a house, a car that’s been flooded, a mortgage and $28,000 from FEMA? And that’s what you’re going to rebuild your life with? We’re trying to give people a starting point.”

Contact: The Western PA Table Project, New Wilmington Presbyterian Church, 229 S. Market St., New Wilmington, PA 16142. Tel: 724-652-6731. www.westernpatableproject.org

This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue.