n-falHShabitat-021209 Gulf Coast reality check
Falmouth students bring help, gain insight into Katrina's lingering effect
FALMOUTH — A recent trip down south to help build a house became a crash course in reality and a lesson in appreciation for a group of Falmouth High School students.
The 10 student volunteers and two chaperons traveled to Bay St. Louis, Miss., in late January, where they spent most of their week working with others on a Habitat for Humanity home.
Many of the students who participated worked to earn the money for the trip. Volunteer Sara Fay said she had saved her babysitting money to be able to go. The week before the trip, Fay said she knew no matter how well-prepared they thought they were, they would most likely not be ready for what they would see.
More than three years after Hurricane Katrina, the Mississippi Gulf Coast is still devastated by the effects of the storm's fury. Often overshadowed by the magnitude of the hurricane's destruction in the New Orleans area, the Bay St. Louis area continues to suffer as more and more people simply forget.
But the 12 who traveled from Maine last month will always remember. And, for some of them at least, their lives have been forever changed after witnessing the devastation and being overwhelmed by the expressions of gratitude from those who live there.
"I was really shocked when we got there," student Kiely Flynn said. "I was expecting to see much more of a city, (but) everything is just gone. Some houses are still in piles at the side of the road."
Student Katie Pape described their tour of the area near the beach, still scenic in spots because of its natural beauty, but haunted by the stark contrasts of blue skies glowing through tree skeletons and the bright southern sun reflecting off the rubble.
"We were warned and I thought we'd see it every now and then, but there are literally buildings that have just collapsed and nobody's picked up," Pape said.
She described driving by where a bank once stood. The still-standing vault was the only evidence it had ever been there.
Volunteer coordinator and chaperon Holly MacEwan said three-quarters of the homes were gone, leaving behind only "driveways to nowhere" and the occasional fireplace.
While saddened by what they saw, the Maine travelers were amazed by what they heard – constant expressions of gratitude from the people as they learned the group had come to help out.
"Everywhere we went the first thing out of their mouths was, 'thank you so much,'" Pape said.
Chaperon John Radtke, a high school social studies teacher, said the outpouring of thanks reinforced the belief for the students that they were doing something "of real tangible value."
That value and the pride in their work was reflected in the home they helped build in just five days.
As part of the Habitat "blitz build" in the area, which was nearing the 100-house mark, the Falmouth contingency joined with volunteers from Americorps and a group of retired men from Indianapolis to hammer, frame, shingle, paint, side and caulk from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, with as many as 40 of them working at a time.
"It really wasn't necessary to know about working on homes – the job supervisors were tremendously patient and would work with the kids as long as they needed help," Radtke said. "Mistakes were made, you laughed about it, fixed it and then you moved on."
During one day of their trip, the Falmouth crew attended a dedication for a new food pantry, financed and built through the Bucks-Mont Katrina Relief Project of Pennsylvania, an organization MacEwan's late father helped found. While Falmouth students were not involved in that project, they have designed and sold note cards to help Bucks-Mont open an animal shelter on Mississippi's gulf coast.
The Falmouth volunteers were encouraged to increase their efforts to help open the shelter after observing the many stray animals during their trip. And the area's existing shelters euthanize animals after two weeks' stay becaue they don't have the room or the resources to continue caring for them, MacEwan said.
But the Falmouth group's visit has already helped lower the animal population in Bay St. Louis. Whle most of the volunteers brought back a shell collection or maybe splinters and hammer-bruised thumbs, Flynn's souvenir was a bit more unusual. After being befriended by a yellow Labrador retriever known to Habitat workers as Bear, Flynn called home and received permission to fly the young dog back to Maine, where he has joined her 5-year-old yellow Lab, Dixie. As students continue their work to raise money for the animal shelter, one can guess who their poster dog will be.
Other students who made the trip to Mississippi were Zach Connerty-Marin, Nancy Cooper, Katie Hedman, Harris Hopkins, Grace Nevins, Molly Nevins and Connor Nolan.