Once again, Yelton in the eye of the storm
GULFPORT, Miss. — Don Yelton flew into this hurricane-ravaged city a few days after Katrina ripped apart trees and power lines, knocked down buildings and casinos and flooded historic beachfront homes.
This is what he found: No electricity. No phone service. And no church leaders waiting to greet him at the airport — even though he had arranged to meet them here.
No problem, said Yelton, who has learned to expect the unexpected after 36 years of responding to disasters.
“I was not suprised at not being able to connect with the group,” said Yelton, 65, director of WFR Relief Ministries, sponsored by the White’s Ferry Road church, West Monroe, La. “My own experience says that gas is often unavailable, roads blocked and marshal law imposed.”
Rather than panic, Yelton walked past twisted planes in a damaged hangar and to the street. Using a trick he learned as a boy, he stuck his thumb in the air and caught a ride to the next terminal with a stranger in a black truck.
When that failed to turn up the missing church leaders, he headed next door to an emergency operations center and asked the National Guard for help. Although he had more formal identification with him, he flashed his “Official Huck Hound Club” membership card, which he has had since 1959.
Army Pfc. Catrina James of Hattiesburg, Miss., may never have heard of “Huckleberry Hound,” an animated series that starred a dim-witted, good-natured hound dog with a Southern drawl. But Yelton’s gesture drew a rare smile on a stressful day.
Yelton also met an Air Force major – a father of three – who had just returned from Iraq and found himself on hurricane duty. Yelton thanked him for his service, and at one point, the major joked, “You’ve got a lot greater boss than I do.”
Yelton eventually left Gulfport without finding the church leaders, who had gone to another terminal and been told, wrongly, that no flights were coming in.
But Sam Williams (left), who joined Yelton on the two-day tour of hard-hit areas in Louisiana and Mississippi, said he had no doubt the stop was a success.
Good seems to follow whatever path Yelton takes, said Williams, a deacon at the Hendersonville, N.C. church, where Yelton serves as an elder.
“You can almost go back in six months and follow the route we’ve taken,” Williams said, “and you’ll see little pockets of good – pockets of Christ – that were just reflected along the route.”
ALWAYS ON CALL
Yelton is the king of catastrophe. When disaster strikes – be it earthquake or famine, terrorist attack, tsunami or tornado – he swings into action, and quickly.
Even before Katrina came ashore, he was making plans to help. By the time the storm passed, he was fielding hundreds of calls and e-mails from people and churches wanting to volunteer or donate money. Almost immediately, he started organizing meetings to “encourage, inform and equip” church members in the devastated areas.
“He has an ability to act, just like that,” Williams said.
As John Howard (left), a White’s Ferry Road elder, described him, Yelton “is the source of all knowledge for disaster.”
More importantly, Howard said, Yelton is a “humble guy who creates unity and can get a lot of diverse people working together. He’s willing to do whatever it takes, but not take over. … The main thing is, he gives people hope. He’ll say, ‘You can do it.’”
COMPASSION: THEN AND NOW
Yelton grew up in Rutherfordton, N.C., 70 miles west of Charlotte. The only child of alcoholic parents, he was “always weird,” he joked in an interview aboard a borrowed private jet headed to Slidell, La.
By age 7, he started hitchhiking to the movie theater. By 13, he had visited most of the Southeastern states – on his own – sometimes sleeping in the woods.
On his high school senior trip to Washington, D.C., he dated a girl named Harriet, now his wife of 46 years. After high school, he joined the Air Force. While in the Arctic Circle in 1963, he completed a Bible correspondence course and was immersed in a bathtub.
Later, the Vietnam War exposed him to death and poverty. Then in 1969, while stationed in Tampa, Fla., Hurricane Camille – one of the worst on record – smashed into the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Much to his surprise, his wife volunteered him to take a plane full of supplies and clothes to the Rodenberg Avenue church in Biloxi. After his initial shock, he talked a colonel into letting him use a C-47 transport plane. Once in the Gulfport-Biloxi area, he drove around and saw the devastation.
“That was the first touch of compassion I can remember,” Yelton said of his start in disaster relief, which lasted two weeks.
For Yelton, Camille offered more than a chance to help hurting people. It showed him the power of God at work in a crisis.
“I got to see that this had done more good for the church than anything in 20 years,” he said. “We had people coming in off the street … who had never been in a church of Christ.”
More than a decade later, after graduating from the now-closed White’s Ferry Road School of Preaching and starting a ministry to service personnel called AMEN, or American Military Evangelizing Nations, Yelton organized a relief effort to take food into Poland.
That led to the creation of WFR Relief Ministries. Working through local congregations, it has raised $22 million and provided humanitarian aid and disaster relief in 50 countries since 1981.
Given Yelton’s experience with disasters all over the world, he brings “a measure of calmness to what seems like chaos,” said Ray Hughes with Rapha International, a Fort Worth, Texas-based medical mission agency.
“He’s forgotten more about this business than I will ever know,” Hughes said at a relief meeting in Baton Rouge, La.