March 13, 2009
College students from all over the country and some from Canada are following through on the promises they made not to forget the damage Hurricane Katrina wrought on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
More than 600 are participating in alternative break programs this month. Students are spending a week building homes and working on other projects for South Mississippi nonprofits rather than soaking up sun in more leisurely activities.
Habitat for Humanity of the Mississippi Gulf Coast is hosting 420 students from 14 colleges and universities on a rotating basis through the end of March as part of the Collegiate Challenge, a program of Habitat for Humanity International. Collegiate Challenge is a nationwide, year-round alternative break program that has been active on the Mississippi Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
A group of 20 students from Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., are working with the local Habitat affiliate this week to build a house on 45th Avenue in Gulfport.
“It’s amazing to think that once we are done someone is going to live in this house,” said volunteer Chelsea Isherwood.
Students from Sacred Heart have returned to the Gulf Coast each year since the storm. Isherwood and fellow volunteer Rob Bristol are veterans of the Collegiate Challenge program, but this is their first visit to South Mississippi.
“Three-and-a-half years after the storm there is still this much damage. It’s a shocker,” said Bristol.
The volunteers are equally amazed by the level of hospitality they have received since their arrival.
“If there is one way to describe it,” said Bristol, “it’s random acts of kindness. The people here are so friendly.”
Collegiate Challenge volunteers will continue to work on homes in Gulfport and Pascagoula over the next few weeks as well as putting the final touches on a nearly complete 28-home development in Long Beach, said local Habitat spokesperson Meg Potts.
The Habitat group may be the largest that has continued to return year after year, but they are by no means the only group.
A group of more than 400 Kent State University students first came to the Coast from Kent, Ohio, in March 2006. At that time volunteer Bob Christy pledged the group would return to continue its rebuilding work for at least four years.
True to that pledge, the group has returned each January and March since that first spring after the storm.
“We usually have about 25 volunteers for the January break and about 125 for the March break,” said Christy.
Kent State students will return the week of March 22 to work on homes in Pass Christian and other South Mississippi cities, said Christy.
Groups participating in United Way’s Alternative Spring Break program are returning this weekend for their second year of service on the Mississippi Coast. More than 70 students from 25 states are expected.
“We hope the lasting memories that ASB participants take with them are the beauty and resiliency of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the power of working together for the common good and the value of volunteering,” said Donna Alexander, executive director for United Way of South Mississippi. United Way ASB volunteers will work on rebuilding and other work projects with the Boys and Girls Clubs in Pass Christian and East Biloxi, Moore Community House, Habitat for Humanity, Camp Coast Care and Back Bay Mission.
United Way of South Mississippi representatives also want to give the volunteers a “true flavor of the Coast,” said Alexander. Tours, local food and beach bonfires will help demonstrate South Mississippi’s famed hospitality and show volunteers how much their continued support is appreciated.