Alternative Spring Break: Students Salvage Homes on the Gulf Coast
Athens, W.Va. - Five Concord University students and one staff advisor traveled to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to continue the commitment to service by Concord University in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst natural disasters in United States history. The team worked in a complex of 300 apartments, with permission, salvaging items to be used to build and repair homes for hurricane victims as well as provide household materials to families in need in the area. The team worked with an organization known as God’s Katrina Kitchen in Gulfport, Miss., that sprung up shortly after the storm providing meals and many other services to victims and volunteers. The service trip occurred during the student’s spring break, Sunday, March 11 through Thursday, March 15.
The students removed cabinets, sinks, light fixtures, vanities, toilets, refrigerators, water heaters and more from the various apartments and loaded them onto trucks to be taken back to distribution centers. The students worked with teams from around the country.
“I felt the pain of the people who had lived in the area because I imagined what it had been like when there had been people living there, people walking around and talking and then what I then saw broke my heart. The empty, broken playground really tore me up inside because children previously had played there, they may have built friendships and had memorable experiences there. This was people’s lives that we going through, just by walking through the complex,” said student participant Samantha Smith of St. Marys in Pleasants County.
After their last day of work at the apartments, the students took time to travel to Pass Christian, Miss., where two of the volunteers on the trip had previously served on their Thanksgiving Break in 2005. The volunteers got a chance to survey the recovery of the town and to revisit their accommodation areas. In addition, they got to see the house that they worked on for the longest time during their stay. The house was completely rebuilt with people living in it.
“The trip back to Pass Christian was bittersweet,” said Jesse Call of Pocahontas, Va., “The piles of trash were gone, the boats and cars removed from the yards where houses once stood, but still yet there was a multitude of empty lots and buildings that had not been rebuilt. However, it was truly a blessing to be able to see someone living in the home we worked on during one of the previous trips. It’s the little victories that have the biggest impact,” he added.
Motivation for the trip for students came from many sources including their personal faiths and a feeling of duty.
“I knew the devastation down there was terrible, and I wanted to do something about it. It’s nice to say you feel sympathy for everything the victims have lost, but unless you do something about it, how are you different from the rest of the United States? I not only recognize the pain that the families are in; I was willing to do something about it,” said Dustin Buchanan of Princeton. “I don't have skills in carpentry or plumbing, and I'm not even very strong ... but I do whatever I can. That is why I went,” he added.
“At first, I just wanted to help out the students wanting to go [by driving]. I would have missed out on a wonderful opportunity if I wouldn't have gone,” said staff advisor Melanie Daniels of Athens.
The students and staff also took time to get to know some of the local residents and hear their stories.
“The most memorable experience…was a guy named John who I met in the dinner line on Wednesday night. I just asked how he was doing and he started sharing his entire story with me. That day he had received an eviction notice on his FEMA trailer and his mom was really sick. In his eyes nothing was going right and he had lost all reason to be alive,” said Treska Dunbar of Ripley. But, John served also as a source of inspiration. “It was really moving to see this young man describe in detail how the hurricane affected him emotionally, physically and how it destroyed all of his material possessions. Even though he had lost everything he could still smile and enjoy life; it was a reminder that even when my life feels like it is falling apart that there is someone out there that has it much worse who is still smiling,” she added.
“The most memorable experience was speaking to this couple who sleeps on a bridge, they had no food and had returned to Mississippi to find their loved ones; very sad situation,” said Traci Macklin of Vinton, Va. “This trip has taught me not to take the little things that we have in life for granted because others would love to have what we complain about or we just put to the side,” she added.
Students participating in the trip were: Dustin Buchanan, Princeton; Jesse Call, Pocahontas, Va.; Treska Dunbar, Ripley; Traci Macklin, Vinton, Va.; and Samantha Smith of St. Marys. Melanie Daniels of Athens, the resident director of Sarvay and Wilson women’s residence halls, was the staff advisor for the trip.
The accommodations on the trip were in a converted home of a family with nearly 20 adoptive children that is now a bed-and-breakfast style accommodation for volunteers. Located in Pass Christian, “Antioch” was established by two ministers from South Carolina, Bishop Adell and Dr. Sybil Whitenburg.
Funding for the trip came from a special grant through the Bertram F. and Corella Bonner Foundation of Princeton, N.J., that was given to the Bonner Scholars program at the University. Concord University is the only public institution in the nation to have the prestigious community service based scholarship program available to students.
Past service opportunities in response to the hurricane have included service trips to Pass Christian, Miss., in November 2005 and New Orleans, La., in March 2006. In addition, several student organizations have sent financial and in-kind donations to the region. After the storm, Concord University’s Student Government Association doubled the funds raised by student organizations. In addition, the Classified Staff Council sent a truckload of materials to the region. The University also opened its doors to students displaced by the storm through the West Virginia Campus Compact.
For more information on God’s Katrina Kitchen and their recovery efforts on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, visit http://www.godskatrinakitchen.org/.
PHOTO: Concord University students in front of the apartment buildings in which they were working in Gulfport, Miss., (back row, left to right) Samantha Smith, St. Marys; Dustin Buchanan, Princeton; Jesse Call, Pocahontas, Va.; (front row, left to right) Treska Dunbar, Ripley; and Traci Macklin, Vinton, Va.; not pictured, Melanie Daniels, staff advisor to the trip.
This news story was written by Jesse Call, a senior majoring in political science. Jesse is from Pocahontas,Va.