Making a city home again

Steve Bushong

Kent State’s Biloxi effort goes beyond its goals

Michelle Huffman, freshman interior design major, tightens cables used on a playhouse that volunteers built for Hurricane Katrina victims in Biloxi. Huffman was one of 140 Kent State United for Biloxi volunteers who traveled to Biloxi to help Hurricane Ka

Credit: Jason Hall

Despite a mechanical problem that left one bus immobile 15 miles from Kent, all 140 volunteers who took part in United for Biloxi safely returned from the Gulf Coast Saturday afternoon.

Students, staff and faculty had spent spring break in Biloxi helping to rebuild lives and property damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Volunteers worked on 31 projects, completing what they could in the time allowed. Projects ranged from building playhouses to actual homes, from hanging drywall to painting it.

Professor George Garrison, a United for Biloxi organizer, said the trip was a success.

“We finished all we came to do,” he said at an outdoor assembly of volunteers Friday in Biloxi.

The United for Biloxi planning committee had set a goal of completing about 17 projects – all of which were completed, plus more.

During previous trips to the Gulf Coast, Kent State left some projects unfinished.

Gary Padak, dean of Undergraduate Studies and a United for Biloxi organizer, said this was because organizers didn’t understand what they would confront in the South, which was sparse organization and lacking communication among vital groups in Biloxi – the churches, survivors and other relief groups.

This year’s trip went more smoothly than last year’s, Padak said.

Organizers spent more time sorting out the projects volunteers worked on this year, he said. Also, he believes students involved this time were truly interested in helping.

He said fun-seekers and those with a general curiosity filled the volunteers’ ranks during previous trips, while everyone involved this year was genuine.

“I believe you can tell a lot about a person’s character by looking at their calendar and checkbook,” Padak said at Friday’s assembly, adding that the volunteers’ time and money went toward the trip. “That suggests that everyone here has a depth of character I’m proud to be associated with.”

Padak, Garrison and other organizers will begin reviewing the trip Wednesday, when the United for Biloxi planning committee meets to debrief. Focuses will include lodging and proper use of volunteers’ talents.

“We’ll look at what we’ve done right and what we could do better – we did nothing wrong,” Garrison said. “And (we’ll) discuss how much longer we’ll come down here.”

Biloxi councilman Bill Stallworth said volunteers will be needed next year, too. He said only about half of the city’s residents have returned home, and many still live in trailers provided by FEMA.

“In east Biloxi we lost 3,000 structures. We’ve come a long way, but there still is significant need,” said Stallworth, who also directs relief efforts in the area. “Most of the progress has been the result of volunteers who come and do what’s necessary to get the job done.”

Padak said United for Biloxi will definitely make a trip next spring, and a January trip will be considered. A trip this summer is unlikely, he said.

In Mississippi, volunteers stayed at four camps – each miles apart – and rarely saw each other. Zack Mikrut, freshman business administration major, traveled to Biloxi with several friends. Although the group stayed in one camp, Camp Biloxi, they were split up amongst different crews and work sites.

“It was cool because I got to meet a lot of new people,” Mikrut said. “You kind of forget while down there, and then you realize that everyone is from Kent State and you can hang out later.”

Amy Werstler, junior exercise science major and week-long resident of Camp Victor, said she made friends, too, though that wasn’t the best part of the experience for her.

The second home her crew worked was owned by an older lady who shared a lot of time with them, often bringing them cookies and juice.

At the end of the week, the lady asked that the crew make a circle with her to pray.

“She was so thankful,” Werstler said. “Hearing what she said was the best part of going down.”

Contact enterprise reporter Steve Bushong at [email protected].