SAFETY HARBOR — When people think of missionaries, they tend to picture people working in remote jungles halfway around the world.
But a local group is proving charity begins at home in the United States.
Members of First Presbyterian Church of Safety Harbor have traveled to New Orleans three times since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005 and have helped people return to their homes and churches.
When Joan Hill became the pastor of Safety Harbor church in 2002, she knew she wanted to lead a missionary group of church members, but wasn't sure where the group would be needed most.
"I come from a missionary background," she said. "I had seen how people's hearts and minds are changed when they are thrown into a different environment."
The answer became clear to her following the hurricane that hit Louisiana and the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005.
In early 2006, the church sent a scouting team to New Orleans to see the devastation and find where it could best be of use. The team discovered a church in Arabi, La., in the New Orleans metro area, that was destroyed after being flooded by up to 12 feet of water.
In September of that year, eight members of the church loaded up a van and drove to the Carolyn Park Presbyterian Church there and began work.
Over the course of a week, the group removed a damaged stage area and air conditioning and stripped the floors in the church building.
"It's amazing what you find out about yourself," said church member Susie Thatcher, 56, of Clearwater. "You have skills you didn't even know you have."
In 2007, a group of six men from the church went back to Arabi — this time to install a steeple on the same church they worked on in 2006.
They faced many obstacles erecting the steeple, including the fact that the housing that had been built to hold the steeple was the wrong size.
"Those men worked all night and got the steeple in and the lightning arrester installed right before a bolt of lightning hit," said Hill, 67. "We knew it was a sign from God that we were there for a reason."
Then earlier this year, five members decided to go back to Louisiana again. This time, they worked on a home that was still uninhabitable more than three and a half years after the hurricane.
The home's owner, Mary Rogers, 68, had been paid more than $70,000 in insurance money and gave it to a contractor who took the money and never completed the work.
The team was able to fix some damaged walls and install insulation and paint — but more importantly, came to know the family that had lived in the house and understand what a difference the group's work made in their lives.
"Once you meet these people, they become like family," Thatcher said. "We were measuring and cutting drywall, mudding, sanding, taping and painting. Mary and her family were there part of the time working right alongside of us."
Rogers' daughter, Cheryl Berzac, 40, is amazed at the generosity of the church group.
"When you've lost everything you own, it brings you to a real low level," she said. "These people were on vacation and they spent eight hours a day helping us. It makes me want to become a better person."
Thatcher said she is surprised at the amount of damage still evident in New Orleans and the group is vowing to go back again, perhaps as early as next year.
"There is still a ton of work to do," she said. "I don't know if it will ever be back to normal."
In addition to working in New Orleans, First Presbyterian members will take their Vacation Bible School, which is held this month, to Raleigh, N.C., in early July. There they will work with a group called "Neighbor to Neighbor" to present the program to a group of kids who have been suspended from school.
Hill said that it doesn't matter how far you travel from home to help others, the benefits are immeasurable.
"I have been on 12 to 15 mission trips and I can tell you," she said, "you never come back the same."