It has been five years since Hurricane Katrina hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the recovery/rebuilding effort is ongoing, albeit outside the spotlight of the national media.
However, volunteers from all over the country continue to pour into St. Ann Parish, which initiated Project Hope and Compassion shortly after Katrina, because they realize that time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds and there is still much work to be done.
“I’m still amazed. I’m in awe,” said Karen Parker, local coordinator for Project Hope and Compassion, as she thinks about the 10,000 plus volunteers who have passed through Camp Hope during the course of the past five years.
“By this time next year, it’ll probably be well over 11,000. The volunteers love it. They come here to do service and the work’s there.”
Roughly 130 volunteers from three parishes in Massachusetts – St. Matthew and St. Anne in Southborough and St. Mary in Holliston – spent the last week of August volunteering through Project Hope and Compassion.
Many, like St. Mary parishioner Jimmy Rainsford have been to the coast numerous times. Rainsford’s first trip was in 2006 and the latest trip was his seventh.
Rainsford vividly remembers that first trip when Katrina’s carnage was still fresh.
“Coming from the airport, I remember getting off I-10 at Hwy 603 and there was a gas station right there and it was wrecked. It was kind of like the first thing I really saw and I was just really shocked,” he said. “I came back in 2007 and it was still like that and, in 2008, I was here for two weeks and it had been rebuilt. I actually went to that gas station last week.”
Rainsford sees that gas station as just one symbol of the transformation that has taken place along the Mississippi Gulf Coast since his first visit.
“It’s definitely a lot different now than it was,” he said.
Rainsford said he keeps coming back to help with the rebuilding efforts because he doesn’t want the people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast to feel abandoned.
“It’s the one thing in my life that I feel is important and it does something to better not just myself but whoever. I mean, you never know,” he said. “I think Americans forget what happened down here and, hopefully, by coming down here, I can show the people of Mississippi that people still care.”
During his latest trip, Rainsford worked on the unfinished home of a lady who is about to be evicted from her FEMA trailer.
“Whenever the day comes to take it away, they’re taking it away whether her house is done or not,” he said.
“It’s kind of selfish why I come down here. It’s just the feeling I get to be able to be part of helping somebody like that. It’s selfish.”
This was Aly Fournier’s fourth trip to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“When I came the first time, it was just a really touching experience for me,” said Fournier, who is a sophomore political science major at Emory University in Atlanta.
“Even though the labor I did meant a lot to people, it was like just my presence here helped to instill hope in this badly damaged community. I really like the people and I like the community feeling I get when I come down here to help, so I’ve been coming back. I come down with my mom, my sister and, normally, one of my cousins. It’s a good bonding time for us too.”
This was Joseph Catanzaro’s first volunteer trip to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The St. Mary parishioner spent the week working at a low income rental property for people who lost their homes during Katrina.
Catanzaro, who is a turf manager for Boston College University athletics, said that, prior to coming to Mississippi with his 16 year-old daughter Kelsey, who had previously made the trip; he didn’t really have any idea of what he was getting into.
“I’ve only seen the good,” he said. “We have sixteen vans with six kids in each van, so there are groups that have seen some worse areas,” Catanzaro said.
“My daughter worked at a soup kitchen and she enjoys doing it, but she was devastated by how many people actually walk out of the woods that have no homes and she said they served about 525 people in one day. So, when I hear about that, there’s still a lot of work to be done here.”
Gene Muller, also a parishioner at St. Mary in Holliston, has made three trips to Camp Hope and said each trip changed his life. Last year, he was in charge of a group of kids that built a wheelchair ramp for Thelma Abrams of Gulfport and, before the group left for Massachusetts, they promised Abrams they would be back to visit her. This year, they made good on that promise.
“Seeing that she was benefiting from the work that my kids did really changed my life some more,” he said. “It makes it all worthwhile. She couldn’t wait to hug me and tell me how the experience has prompted her to go back to church on Sundays. I never thought that, in my life, somebody would tell me that something I did would make them start going back to church.”
John Armstrong, a local volunteer who has been helping out at Project Hope and Compassion for three years, agrees with Catanzaro that there is still a lot of work to be done.
“A lot of people that are in need now fell between the cracks during all of the major stuff,” said Armstrong, who, has worked with Habitat for Humanity for about 15 years.
“With all the focus on gutting houses and rebuilding, there are still a lot of people who have little things left to finish up to make their place livable and those that weren’t directly affected by the hurricane who would have gotten help except for all of this Katrina relief.”
“Some of the volunteers that are coming now are doing some of those things and they’re having every bit of a rewarding experience as they did when they were tearing out sheetrock and things like that four years ago.
Armstrong, who is a Methodist, said Project Hope and Compassion has been an invaluable asset to the Mississippi Gulf Coast post-Katrina.
“I tell (Karen Parker) every time I come out here that this is about the only thing close to its size that is still working here,” he said. “The Methodists still have two camps and they’re going to work till next April. Most of the others have gone out of business and folded up, so Project Hope is a real beacon.”
And, according to St. Ann pastor Father Pete Mockler, who is also the director of Project Hope and Compassion, as long as a need exists and the volunteers are willing to come, Project Hope will continue to operate.
“When I look back, I am moved by the generosity that has been poured out on our area by so many compassionate people who have been part of Project Hope and Compassion. We have had a good recovery and I feel privileged and blessed to have witnessed it,” he said.
“It is so gratifying to see so many people still participate after five years. There is still much to be done. The impact of the BP oil spill on the Gulf coast environment and economy will now slow that recovery even more. We at PHC are resolved to stay with this effort for as long as is feasible. We will be willing to host volunteers for as long as they come to help.”
Printed with permission from Gulf Pine Catholic, newspaper for the Diocese of Biloxi.