Biloxi Teaches Kent Students About Rebuilding Lives

Commentary by Katie Cleary

    In March 2007, a year and a half after Hurricane Katrina touched the ground and swept away much of Louisiana and Mississippi, I was one of 150 Kent State students who volunteered at various locations to help clean up and rebuild Biloxi, Mississippi. 

    The unofficial theme of the week was family.  My group worked with Habitat for Humanity on a row of houses that would go to three different families who had put in the hours required to own a home through the charity.  Homeowners must work a total of 300 hours before receiving the key, and forty before they are even given an address.  With these hard-working individuals and the dedicated Habitat and Ameri-Corps volunteers, we helped turn houses into homes.

    I have never eaten and slept so much in my life.  I would eat every meal like it was my last and promptly go to bed at ten o’clock every night, but still feel exhausted after my more than a full night of rest.  My group stayed at the Disciples of Christ Church in Gulfport, MS, and our little crew became more like a family with each passing day.  We all had chores to do everyday, everyone helped with dinner and only five minutes were allowed for each person to shower.

    I learned a lot about construction too; everything from the use of power tools, roofing installation, and even how to put siding up on a house.  I also learned a few things about the housing codes in Mississippi since Katrina.  Now, all houses must have straps nailed into the top and bottom of every beam in the base of the house.  These are conveniently called “hurricane straps.”  I thought that this is just what these straps were called, since most things associated with tools and construction have rough-sounding names, but in this case these straps are there to hold the houses down in the winds of a hurricane.   

    It was surreal to look out at an ocean and walk along a beach with a calm breeze and gentle waves.  Just a little over a year ago, this same water was deadly and engulfing this land and its people, and neither will ever be the same.  It was bizarre to drive around and see homes so close to the ocean not completely intact, but still standing strong.  The circles stating the number dead, alive and injured in the house were still visible.  There were still lines at God’s Katrina Kitchen, people are still homeless and out of jobs, children still not back in regular schools.  Yes, these numbers are smaller, but that does not mean the problems are gone. 

    For me, volunteering is not a selfless act.  I love the feeling that helping others gives me, I love knowing I made a difference.  I know it’s impossible for any individual to fix every problem in the world, but the most important thing to remember is that you can still make a difference.

Copyright Homeless Grapevine, Cleveland Ohio Issue 81 June-July 2007