Jun 172008
Authors: Aaron Hedge

JOHNSTOWN – The irony of Jessica Vrettos’ situation became increasingly apparent to her as she and her long-time friend Shannon Farrell walked past a country ranch house — the top half of which had been completely mangled by tornadoes — at the end of May.

Vrettos and Farrell had spent most of the month homeless, walking from the border of New Mexico northward to raise money to build a house for a New Orleans family displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

But now, as they hiked County Road 17 from Johnstown, they also offered their help to the landlord of the tornado-ravaged house, John Hussar.

The two CSU graduates were unemployed, and Vrettos was homeless — except for a minivan and a Jeep that accompanied them on the trip for emergencies.

“I don’t have a job right now, so I’m available,” Farrell, a natural resource management graduate told Hussar, offering to put a crew together to help rebuild the house that he had been renting to another family.

Hussar thanked them for the offer, but declined, saying with disappointment, “They’ll probably just bulldoze it.”

Later, as they continued up the dirt road, Vrettos outlined her unique situation to the Collegian. She had given up her home in Fort Collins to spend the time it would take to raise the $93,500 to put toward one for a family in New Orleans.

And on May 24, the occupational therapy graduate was offering her help to repair a destroyed home in northern Colorado, where, just two days before, six devastating tornados ripped through hundreds of homes, tore age-old trees out of the ground and caused nearly $150 million in damage around Weld County.

The women’s primary goal, however, was still to carry out the mission to provide at least one destitute family in New Orleans with shelter.

As for food and living expenses while they were on the road, the women paid out of their own pockets, using money they had saved from day jobs before they began the effort.

Habitat For Humanity, a global non-profit organization dedicated to community development in areas ravaged by natural and social disasters, handles the money Vrettos and Farrell are raising.

As a stipulation of the program, the organization reallocates 10 percent of the money raised and put it toward rebuilding locally in Colorado.

That leaves about $85,000 for rebuilding in New Orleans.

But Vrettos and Farrell have a long way to go. As they trekked the 14 miles from Johnstown to Harmony Road, the 2001 graduates had only raised about $8,000 from fundraisers across the state, including concerts and benefit dinners.

As of now, they have $10,000.

But they remain optimistic.

“We’ve got a few more fundraisers to do,” Farrell said with a smile.

They reached Wyoming on May 31, walking the final six miles with a small group of supporters from Fort Collins on the defunct Old Cheyenne Highway under special permission from the county.

The idea for the walk came to Vrettos and Farrell in February 2007, when they helped gut a house in New Orleans that had been ravaged by Katrina.

“We had to do something more,” Farrell said from the driver’s seat of their van after they were done walking May 24.

When they came back to Fort Collins, they started brainstorming ideas and met a Colorado woman named Anna Merchant who spent three winter months walking across the state to raise money for the Dennis Kucinich presidential campaign. She pulled her belongings in a wagon.

“She was tough,” Farrell said. “She was a smoker.”

Farrell and Vrettos’ walk was slightly more complicated, though.

Sticking mostly to dirt roads, they parked their vehicles every morning on each end of a stretch, usually about 15 miles.

At the beginning of May, they slept in the van, but as they walked through northern Colorado, they stayed at Farrell’s Fort Collins home.

On May 24, Vrettos’ boyfriend, Jason Slotter, came from Fort Collins to spend the day walking with them. They were to meet him at a road junction, but he was late. They didn’t want to lose their momentum, so they worked it out so they wouldn’t have to stop.

Vrettos waited for Slotter, and ran three miles to catch up with Farrell so she wouldn’t miss any of the trek.

That day, the walk ended at Harmony Road, and the women drove to Denver for a benefit concert by local Reggae band Lion Vibes, friends of the women who agreed to let them piggyback off the existing fundraising opportunity, at the Oriental Theater.

For more information, go to www.onemorehomeneworleans.com.

News Managing Editor Aaron Hedge can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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