Mainstreams: Traveling Angels take flight after disaster strikes

by Britt Aamodt

Contributing Writer

Jenny Orsborn, Zimmerman, recollects a service at Elk River’s St. Andrew’s Church in 2006. An announcement was made that the church would be taking a group to New Orleans to help with the Hurricane Katrina cleanup.

“I didn’t know a soul who was going,” she said. “But I thought, OK, that’s what I’m going to do. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”

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“At the time, I was a single mom and searching for something for myself,” she said. “I asked my girls if it would be all right if I went.”

Orsborn and Shields met on the trip south. And they, like everyone else, came away from the devastated city profoundly moved.

So in December 2008, the two women and others from the New Orleans trip joined together and created The Traveling Angels. The nonprofit group works with a sponsor to fund yearly trips to disaster relief areas.

Transportation, food and shelter are provided. But the participants — the traveling angels — bring to each journey a willingness to learn, two good hands and a lot of heart.

The Angels visited New Orleans six years in a row.

“It looked like a war zone,” Orsborn said. The city had been under water for two weeks. “Miles of oblivion and then in the middle of the street you’d see a house.”

“I went into a closet and on the shelf were a pair of infant tennies,” Shields said. “That’s when it hit me that this is some family’s home. Their whole life has been turned upside down.”

The Angels’ jobs weren’t always pretty, especially at the beginning. They donned face masks to protect themselves from the mold growing on soggy furniture and collapsing walls. They hauled and dumped. They mopped and swept. Whatever needed doing, they rolled up their sleeves and pitched in.

As the years progressed, they went from cleanup to home building. They learned new skills.

“I work at a desk. I don’t know how to do carpentry. But there’s always someone there to show you what to do,” Orsborn said.

They met people along the way. A resident invited the Angels to a backyard crawfish boil. He’d seen them coming to his city year after year.

“You Angels are not the bling-bling people,” he told Orsborn. “You’re not the ones who come for the attention. You’re the ones who come after everyone else has forgotten about us.”

The Traveling Angels had to stop going to New Orleans when their sponsor for the trips lost its funding. But the job there is far from finished.

“You could go to New Orleans today and there’s still work to be done,” Orsborn said.

Every year, the Angels set aside one week, usually in March, to travel to a city or town hit by tragedy. After Hurricane Sandy, they went to New York and New Jersey. They’ve been to Missouri and Indiana. They’ve cleaned up after hurricanes, floods and tornadoes.

Group members make weekend trips throughout the year. They’ve sawed trees and cleaned yards for people in Wadena, McGregor, Aitkin, Elk River and, in 2011, North Minneapolis after a tornado.

The Angels have a solid 10 members. Many more have gone on just one or two trips.

Scott Anderson, Zimmerman, was introduced to the Angels through Shields.

He said after a long day at a work site, “All you want to do is get a shower and something to eat.”

But it’s a good kind of exhausted that gives you an appreciation for the small things.

“Who wouldn’t want to sleep on an air mattress and eat sandwiches every day?” Shields joked. “It’s all you need.”

Everywhere the Angels go, they leave behind an angel figurine. But the places also leave their mark on the relief workers.

Orsborn remembers the sister-in-law of the man at the crawfish boil.

“She said: ‘There’s so much destruction around here. Sometimes I just want to give up and move away. But then I meet someone like you, coming here on your vacation time,’” recounted Orsborn. “And of course, I cried.”

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