Catholic Worker family seeks new home after West Virginia flood

A view of the backyard of the home of Brian and Kathleen DeRouen after late-June flooding in Alderson, W. Va. The home was not salvageable. (The DeRouen family)

Among the thousands of West Virginians who continue to cope with the rains’ ruinous aftermath are Brian and Kathleen DeRouen. The Catholic Worker couple operate a free bed-and-breakfast for families of female inmates incarcerated at the minimum-security Alderson Federal Prison. While the Alderson Hospitality House escaped the waters, the DeRouen family home, along with the backyard garden, are gone.

“They were under four feet of water,” said Brian DeRouen.

The house is not salvageable, he said. When he and his wife tackled the mess, they discovered mold in the drywall leftover from a past flood.

The DeRouen home was among the 1,200 severely damaged or destroyed following the flash flooding that began June 23. The 12-county region affected by the waters continues a slow recovery, with nearly 9,000 households and renters applying with FEMA for federal disaster assistance. More than $111 million has already been granted.  

For the first few days immediately following the catastrophe, the DeRouens and their two boys, Micah and Vitale, took shelter on the third floor of the Alderson Hospitality House. A few neighbors joined them. Since then, the Wheeling-Charleston, W. Va., diocese provided them a temporary residence in what, until recently, served as St. Mary the Greenbrier Mission Church in Alderson.

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Kathleen DeRouen said the family can remain there until the building is sold while they work toward replacing their own house – estimated at a cost of $100,000. So far, the DeRouens have collected $21,000 through the fundraising website Razoo. They hope to eventually purchase a green Amish log cabin, which will occupy high ground away from the potential of future flooding.

The blessings of higher ground was the salvation of their ministry “up the hill.” The three-story white Victorian dwelling is “totally fine,” DeRouen said, and continues to operate at full capacity. Alderson Hospitality House has welcomed more than 50,000 overnight visitors since its inception in 1977. It typically accommodates 13 guests each weekend of the year but is left vacant during the week.

Brian and Kathleen have served as the co-directors of Alderson Hospitality House since 2009. They cook, scrub, change beds, do laundry and quietly listen to their often brokenhearted- and stressed-out guests. Besides families, the hospitality house provides a place for “self-surrendering” inmates to spend the night prior to reporting to the federal prison. They offer orientation “how-to” guidelines for navigating the prison system; Brian is the one who drives the women from Alderson Hospitality House to Alderson Federal Prison.

A tough assignment, for sure, anyway you look at it, but Brian calls his work a good fit. He can identify.

In 2004, he spent four months in a federal California prison for performing acts of civil disobedience at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, in Ft. Benning, Ga.

“We made our wedding plans while I was prison,” he recalled.

His spiritual mentor is Franciscan Fr. Louis Vitale, of Oakland, Calif., who himself has served time for acts of civil disobedience. The couple's youngest son is named for the priest.

Brian and Kathleen DeRouen met in graduate school at the University of Dayton. Married in 2005, they moved to West Virginia to join the staff of Catholic Workers at Bethlehem Farm in the state’s southern corner. When positions opened up at Alderson Hospitality House, the couple moved there.

Besides soothing hurting hearts, the couple has also since taken on the task of filling hungry bellies. Five years ago, Kathleen discovered there was a lack of fresh produce available, so she helped start two community gardens, one at a local elementary school and the other at St. Mary of the Greenbrier Church -- and both of which survived the recent flooding.

When the local IGA supermarket closed last year, turning the town into a local food desert, she organized a food cooperative -- the Alderson Food Hub – which saved the community a 15-mile drive to the nearest grocery.

[Sharon Abercrombie is a frequent contributor to Eco Catholic.]

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