Group returns from second Biloxi trip

Jackie Valley

Sadie Moss, a resident of Division Street in Biloxi, Miss., speaks with a group of Kent State volunteers, Monday, January 8, 2007, who where looking at a leaky roof on her home. PHOTO COURTESY OF BOB CHRISTY

Credit: John Proppe

Michael Vaughn had a goal for his last semester at Kent State — do something outside of himself.

Thinking the January trip to the Gulf Coast would be his last opportunity, the senior English major jumped at the chance to help with the hurricane relief efforts.

Now, he said, he “can’t not go back.”

About 40 students, faculty and staff traveled to Biloxi, Miss., Jan. 4-11 as part of Kent State’s second student trip to help with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Kent State United for Biloxi, a committee formed in the wake of the hurricane, plans the trips, said Gary Padak, committee member and dean of undergraduate services.

The Kent State group has evolved into a national effort to rebuild the Gulf Coast, which organizes and focuses support beyond the Kent community.

“We have generated more help and assistance from our expanding network down there,” said George Garrison, committee member and professor of Pan African studies.

Garrison said the group worked on rebuilding seven houses in Biloxi and Gulfport, La.

Between mastering painting and carpentry skills, volunteers welcomed the opportunity to get to know the area’s residents.

“The people would just open right up to you,” Vaughn said, adding they frequently shared storm stories and showed surprising optimism.

Garrison said volunteers provided a “listening ear” for the residents still coping with their losses.

“You need to talk to someone,” he said. “It’s natural. You need to get it out.”

Vaughn said the residents are appreciative of the Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers provided by the government, but they readily acknowledge their largest support — the volunteers.

“They knew who was really leading the relief efforts,” he said.

Even so, the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina still overshadow the residents’ optimism.

Eighteen months after the hurricane, Padak said the water is still off limits because of debris lurking on the ocean floor. Glass, nails and shards of bricks still scatter the ground.

The magnitude of the destruction demanded prioritization of the rebuilding efforts — schools, hospitals and homes first; landmarks, parks and cemeteries last, Vaughn said.

“You hear about it on the news, but you never really understand it until you go there,” he explained. “When you see a cemetery with destroyed tombstones, it just gives you a little pause.”

Garrison said the barrier between the area’s big business and poverty-stricken neighborhoods is beginning to expand.

“One thing that stuck out was the great poverty and the developing homeless class in contrast to the wealth of the casinos,” Garrison said.

The emerging homeless class is just as diverse as the melting pot region itself.

“Poverty knows no color line,” Garrison said. “The people suffering and that need help cut across all ethnic and racial lines.”

The benefits, however, extend beyond the Biloxi residents.

Padak said the “satisfaction of providing a helping hand” to people who endured one of the worst natural disasters in the last 50 years is one experience that cannot be replicated.

He added that volunteers also experience the diverse culture of the region, acquire new skills and develop friendships to bring back to Kent State.

Padak witnessed what he calls the “opportunity to create a bond” when initial strangers returned to Kent State as friends last Thursday.

The trips to Biloxi, however, are only part of Kent State United for Biloxi’s efforts to aid the region. Kent State also drove truckloads of collected donations to the New Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Shreveport, La., shortly after the hurricane in 2005, organized a school supplies drive in August 2006 and participated in a Christmas gift drive for more than 250 children in Biloxi.

Another group will travel to Biloxi during spring break, March 24-31. The cost is $299 per student, and the goal is to have 200 people go down, Padak said.

“We hope to continue to develop educational opportunities for our students through experiences with the relief efforts,” Garrison said.

Contact general assignment reporter Jackie Valley at [email protected].