As long as there is a need, students from Muskegon Catholic Central High School in Michigan will continue coming to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to help rebuild homes and lives shattered by Hurricane Katrina.
A contingency of 31 students and eight adults returned during the first week of April to Camp Hope in Lizana, where Project Hope and Compassion, an outreach program initiated by St. Ann Parish shortly after Katrina, is based.
From there, the volunteers set out to destinations all along the coast to help with various projects, including a massive renovation effort at the Pass Christian, Mississippi home of Jeannie Burnam.
“This is our fifth tour of duty,” said the school’s campus minister, Michael Tober, who knew Burnam through her work with Square Foot Ministry, a Christian-based home repair and construction ministry located in Fayette County, Georgia.
“Today, we’re cleaning Jeannie’s yard. She and her husband lost her home in the hurricane and they actually bought this house a few years ago. It needed total renovation. There’s still a lot of significant work to do in the home. We’re rebuilding her kitchen, helping her put up a 100 ft. fence and anything else she needs.”
With the threat of rain looming large on this particular early April day, Muskegon Catholic High students armed with rakes, hammers and posthole diggers scurried around Burnam’s yard working on a variety of projects.
This was the second consecutive year that sophomore Phillip Mesker made the journey from Michigan to Mississippi out of “a desire to help people.”
“It’s a wonderful experience, very spiritual,” said Mesker. “And you feel just absolutely wonderful seeing how people react when you help them out. It’s great to be back helping out and being with friends. We’re doing a lot of cleanup work and rebuilding this year. Last year, we did a lot of tearing down.”
Lori Doriot accompanied her daughter, McKenzie on the trip. This was the first time either had traveled to Mississippi as part of the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.
Lori said she hopes McKenzie comes away from the experience with a greater sense of compassion and a willingness to serve others and recognize the needs of others like Jeannie Burnam.
“When we walked on to the site today and just kind of looked around, I stopped and looked at all of the Rubbermaid storage containers behind the house and I just couldn’t understand, until I had a conversation with Jeannie, and heard the story of why those storage containers are there. Those are the contents of her home. They’ve been sitting there and it’s hard for her to even go over there and look at what’s inside of them. She’ll occasionally go over and empty the contents of one. It saddens her, so she hasn’t gone back to finish emptying those because she needs to have those happy days. When I heard her story, it just touched my heart how hard it is for them to still deal with Katrina and how they’re coping with it.”
McKenzie, who is a ninth grader, is also hopeful that this whole experience will help her to grow in compassion and understanding.
“There’s a difference between watching this on the news and being here to see what really happened because of Katrina,” she said. “It’s really sad, actually.”
But McKenzie wasn’t sad to sacrifice her spring break to help instead of going on family vacations like some of her other classmates. In fact, she said she’s happy she decided to come and has been looking forward to coming down to help out ever since she learned about the trip.
And that makes Lori Doriot feel really good.
“All of these kids are giving up their vacations. This is their vacation. This is their spring break,” she said.
“It’s awesome. It is amazing how they are treating and respecting one another. It makes me proud as a parent that I send my children to (Muskegon Catholic Central High School). It makes me proud of these young men and women and the way they are handling themselves.”
While Lori Doriot’s heart was full of pride, Burnam’s heart was filled with gratitude.
It has been a long road to recovery for the Pass Christian native, whose family home was destroyed by Katrina.
“I had moved back here right before Katrina to live in my late mother’s house on Hiern Avenue. We spent about three years remodeling it. We moved in at the beginning of August and Katrina hit at the end of August.”
The Burnam’s did not have flood insurance and stayed in a FEMA trailer on Hiern Avenue for about three years before buying their current home on East Second Street two years ago.
For five years, Burnam volunteered with Square Foot Ministry, serving as volunteer coordinator and helping to build 19 houses in Pass Christian, all the while neglecting her own needs.
“My needs have been in plastic boxes and storage units,” she said. Most everything went under water. There’s stuff I haven’t even gone through.”
Now that she is retired from volunteer work, Burnam is more focused on her own needs and said it would be difficult to even begin to try and meet those needs without the help of organizations like Project Hope and Compassion.
“If it wasn’t for the faith-based groups that are coming in and the churches, there wouldn’t be enough help for these people who still need it,” said Burnam, who has benefitted from a steady flow of volunteers.
“It’s very heartwarming. I just can’t believe they give up their spring break to come down here and help. They just all work so really hard and they love doing it.”
And they will keep on doing it as long as there is a need.
“It’s as simple as that,” said Tober.
“There are still people who need help. Jeannie needs someone who can give her hope – hope that she can get her life back to normal, that she can have less stress and begin doing some of the things that she’s wanted to do but hasn’t been able to do because of her own situation. She has given to Pass Christian for years and years working with volunteers and putting up Square Foot homes and has done nothing for herself. This is our way of giving back to her.”
Printed with permission from Gulf Pine Catholic, newspaper for the Diocese of Biloxi, Miss.