Reisie Murchison has every reason to believe in angels.
“I met Norm, and his words were, ‘We’ll be there for you,’” Murchison said. “I remember like it was yesterday. I thanked him, he said, ‘You don’t understand. We’ll be there for you until the end.’ And he didn’t lie. Operation Southern Comfort came in and put me in a comfort zone. I felt comforted that all of these angels were around me doing everything they could. They fixed up everything.”
Murchison will get to thank her angels in person this weekend. Thanks to an anonymous benefactor, Murchison, her daughter and her father will fly up to Syracuse from St. Bernard Parish, La., for the annual Crawfish Festival, the major fundraiser for Operation Southern/Northern Comfort.
Operation Southern Comfort was started in 2006 by Liverpool resident Norm Andrzejewski, a Tulane graduate who’d spent time on the Gulf Coast in the 1960s. He made his first relief trip in response to a conversation with a friend, Donlene Butler, whose Belle Chasse, La., neighborhood had seen significant damage. Andrzejewski gathered a group of volunteers who spent five days cleaning up before heading home, determined to return.
Since then, OSC has made more than 35 trips to the Gulf Coast, with some 1,850 volunteers working on more than 300 projects. Most have headed back to Louisiana, though two groups have gone to Gulfport, Miss. All trips are funded by traveler contributions; each volunteer is asked to pay $280 for their own expenses, room and board. Local contributions pay for construction materials.
Then last spring, in an effort to help out closer at home, Andrzejewski started Operation Northern Comfort. The organization, headed by Dick Bonanno, provides labor, donations and support to anyone in need throughout Central New York. According to the organization’s mission statement, “Whether it is delivering donated furniture, painting a room or organizing a fundraiser, the volunteers at ONC will do whatever they can to help. Following the example of its sister organization, Operation Southern Comfort, Operation Northern Comfort has no paid staff and welcomes volunteers of all skill and experience level; no job is ever too small. ONC is geared toward one day reconstructing houses in the area.”
The sixth annual Crawfish Festival will take place from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, May 4, in Clinton Square downtown. Subheaded “A taste of Louisiana with a touch of New York,” the event will include traditional New Orleans cuisine like crawfish, beignets and jambalaya, as well as local favorites like salt potatoes, clams and hot dogs. There will also be live music, raffles, games, crafts, auctions and more.
“This is our major fundraiser,” Andrzejewsi said. “It pays for the materials we use in building and fixing homes. All of our labor, including the administration, is volunteer and free.”
For more information, visit crawfishfestcny.org.
Reisie Murchison didn’t think she’d be able to attend the festival due to a shortage of funds. Murchison has had a hard life. She’s survived several heart attacks and multiple strokes. She still suffers from seizures and can’t work or drive long distances. Her daughter, Danielle, 13, has numerous mental and physical disabilities.
But by far the worst thing to happen to Murchison and her family was Hurricane Katrina.
“During Hurricane Katrina, we evacuated Friday to Clinton, Miss. While we were there, we saw everything on the news — the houses, the water, etc.,” she said. “When we left, we had nothing but the clothes on our backs and whatever we could fit in my little vehicle. We didn’t come back for two months, because they weren’t letting us in. My oldest daughter finally escorted us in, and when we got home, we found that everything was gone. We lost everything.”
While attempting to rebuild her house, Murchison and her family — daughter Danielle, her parents, her two grandchildren and her godchild, who has special needs — had the option of staying in a FEMA trailer an hour and a half from her home or in a community tent with 20 strangers and no place for the kids to sleep. Instead, she rented an apartment in St. Bernard Parish. Little by little, she was starting to fix the place up on her own when OSC showed up and helped her finish.
Six months after the house was done, during which time Murchison’s mother passed away, she and her family were sitting outside when Danielle went into the house.
“She came running out and said she saw smoke. The house was on fire,” Murchison said. “She had little light-up butterflies around her window and they ignited. That brought us down to sticks and bricks again.”
Murchison was able to rebuild with the help of OSC volunteers. Unfortunately, tragedy wasn’t done with Murchison; she lost the house to her ex-husband and his new wife just nine months later.
But when Andrzejewski said he’d be there until the end, he meant it.
“Norman heard and came to New Orleans. He said, ‘We’ll find you a piece of property and we’ll build you a house,” Murchison said.
But Murchison, who gets by on Social Security, couldn’t afford any property. That’s when another angel stepped in, an elderly friend whom Murchison had helped during the hurricane.
“I told her about what Southern Comfort was doing, and I was going to ask her to help me by cosigning a loan,” Murchison said. “But she said, ‘No, I’m going to buy the property for you. And one day you can help someone else.’”
Murchison’s friend also gave her the money to purchase a mobile home from another friend, where Murchison and her daughter have been living while the new house was being constructed by OSC volunteers.
Now, Murchison is just a couple of weeks away from moving in.
“I’m now two weeks away from moving into our beautiful home,” she said. “It’s the most beautiful home I’ve seen in my life. It’s absolutely gorgeous.”
And the home is full of reminders of the angels from Syracuse — and around the world — who came to help her.
“All of the studs have kids’ names on them. There are 600 signatures on the studs in my house,”’ Murchison said. “I’ve had people from Peru, Russia, France, Spain, Italy, Romania and my whole family in New York. I have more family in New York than you do. These people are my family. It’s a wonderful feeling to know you’re loved that much.”
Murchison acknowledged that her life looked pretty bleak for a while, but now the tears she cries are expressions of happiness.
“I have a lot of tears, but they’re not from sadness. They’re from joy, joy that God sends every angel He can find,” she said. “Norm was the one He recruited to come down here.”
Murchison said no one needs to feel sorry for her; she’s on the path to a better life.
“Save your prayers for someone else,” she said. “All my prayers have been answered.”
To volunteer or learn more about Operation Northern Comfort, find them online at operationsoutherncomfort.org and click on the Operation Northern Comfort link; find them on Facebook at Facebook.com/OperationNoCo; or on twitter at @OperationNoCo.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.