WEB-ONLY: Students on a mission

Steve Bushong

“How important is painting a living room?”

Academic program officer Pamela Jones posed the question to about 35 United for Biloxi volunteers who assembled in the Student Center last week who were mostly students. They came in preparation for their spring break trip to southern Mississippi where they’ll help rebuild houses and lives that were damaged by Hurricane Katrina.


Jones answered herself.

As President George Bush acknowledged when he recently visited with Biloxi, Miss. officials to discuss post-Katrina rebuilding, life in coastal Mississippi has not returned to normal.

“I fully understand there’s still work to be done, that even though progress has been made, this storm was so devastating that we have still got to stay focused on the task,” the President said March 2 in Biloxi, according to the Sun Herald.

As coastal residents work toward establishing a normal life, paint on the walls is seen as progress, Jones said. And in a region where towns such as Waveland, Miss. have just been reopened to the public – whose post office, destroyed by Katrina, is still indefinitely closed – paint on the walls is a relief.

Pan-African Studies professor George Garrison is among United for Biloxi’s organizers. He traveled to the Gulf Coast in September 2005, just weeks after Katrina hit, wanting to help those devastated by the hurricane. Kept from entering New Orleans by authorities, Garrison went to Biloxi.

It was a town about the size of Cuyahoga Falls – 50,000 people – largely forgotten after the disaster. Garrison saw its need for assistance.

“Faith-based groups moved in and set up shop, but so did Kent State,” Garrison said.

The first group of about 400 United for Biloxi volunteers, organized in part by Garrison, responded to the disaster in March 2006. A second group of 40 returned in January 2007. But more volunteers are needed.

“The job we went down there to do is not complete,” Garrison said. “And it won’t be complete for a while.”

It is this need for further assistance in Biloxi and its neighboring towns, where Katrina’s turbulent eye made landfall, that will bring Kent State’s United for Biloxi to the area for a third time this spring. The trip will take place during Spring Break, March 24 through 31.

As of Friday, 100 people had registered for the alternative spring break program, a representative from the Undergraduate Studies office said. Organizers are looking forward to as many as 150 people signing up to go to Biloxi.

The deadline for registration is Friday. The trip costs $299, but it’s also worth class credit. The Web site for registration is http://www.kent.edu/Biloxi/Registration.cfm. Volunteers will be required to attend an orientation session at 6 p.m. March 21 in Room 204 of the Student Center.

Class credit available to volunteers

Students can register for a special topics course through Undergraduate Studies to receive one credit for their participation in United for Biloxi.

“It’s either an A or a F,” said Gary Padak, dean of Undergraduate Studies. To receive a passing grade, students are required to complete the following tasks:

• Attend orientation, which is required.

• Participate at work and during activities.

• Attend a focus group after the trip.

• Produce a memorable product.

For the last requirement, Padak said some students who went to Biloxi last year created scrapbooks, movies or PowerPoint presentations. Others wrote papers.

“Just something a person could keep that reflected what happened there,” Padak said.

The major part of the trip – the volunteer work – will take place from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Projects may include painting, sanding, roofing, dry-walling or debris pickup.

“Probably at least 20 jobs we’ll begin and finish in this time,” Garrison said.

Last year, all of the 100 people who enrolled in the special topics course passed, Padak said. And most students turned in projects that went beyond his expectations.

Those who enrolled in the course last year are eligible to take the course again.

The expected Biloxi experience

Unlike last spring break, volunteers will not have to stay in “Tent City,” an emergency housing area built by the Army Corps of Engineers after the hurricane hit. Rather, volunteers will reside in dormitory-style housing provided by local churches.

Compared to last year, the lodging for volunteers is considerably better, organizers said.

“Now we have indoor plumbing, showers . quite different from last year,” Jones said.

Last year, United for Biloxi volunteers, who were among the first groups to travel to Biloxi after the hurricane, shared a handful of showers in a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They also used portable toilets.

But hardships encouraged community, as many who shared tents became friends.

During orientation, veteran Biloxi volunteer Mary Chimney, sophomore advertising major, said she liked the makeshift city. She met her best friend there. Later she said the hardest part about the trip was the bus ride, rather than the primitive camp.

“It was suppose to be 20 hours, but it took 26 hours,” Chimney said.

Nevertheless, she’s returning this to Biloxi this spring.

Padak is in charge of the transportation for the upcoming trip. He is counting on a 19 hour trip, beginning at 2 p.m. Saturday and ending at 9 a.m. Sunday, just in time for religious services if volunteers choose to attend.

Volunteers will travel on Carnation Charter Coach, a charter bus company that has worked with Kent State before.

After arriving in Biloxi on Sunday morning, volunteers will learn how to use various tools for working on houses, and then they may take a trip to areas west of Biloxi, which haven’t been much improved since the hurricane hit, Padak said.

Contact general assignment reporter Steven Bushong at [email protected].