It has been nearly five years since Hurricane Katrina struck the Mississippi Gulf Coast and, while the storm has long ceased being at the forefront of the national conscience, volunteer groups from all over the country, well aware that sometimes the scars you don’t see are more painful than the ones you do see, are still coming here to lend a helping hand.
A steady stream of volunteers continues to flow into Camp Hope in Lizana, Miss., where Project Hope and Compassion, an outreach ministry started by St. Ann Parish is headquartered.
Recently, 41 volunteers from Muskegon Catholic Central High School, including 31 students and 10 adults, spent a week at Camp Hope, where they established their base of operations before fanning out into the nearby city of Long Beach to help the Alexander Family, a family of four who have been living in a sugar cane shack that was converted into cramped living quarters after Katrina rendered their home uninhabitable.
“Our high school has been coming down every year since Katrina,” said Michael Tober, campus minister at Catholic Central High School. “I think most of the immediate Katrina stuff is done, but there are also a lot of people down here who just need help. There’s a lot of poverty in certain places, so this just kind of developed into us coming down during spring break and finding out who those people are and serving those who really need the help.”
During the months preceding the groups’ visit, Tober had several conversations with John Armstrong of Christ United Methodist Church in Long Beach.
“He knows a lot of people that I don’t and I kind of tell him what I’m looking for and what type of resources we have and this is the place that he found that really suited the needs of our group and we were able to do something special for them,” said Tober.
After determining that the Alexander home could not be salvaged, the volunteers commenced with the treacherous task of demolishing the Alexander home.
“Once we came to that conclusion, in talking with the family, it was evident that what would really help them would be to remove it and give them a chance to build towards a future,” Tober said. “In the meantime, we also saw immediate needs with their existing structure, so we just asked if there were some things we could do to make it more livable and that would make life a little easier for them and that’s what we’ve been doing this week.”
Tober said the annual trip to Mississippi is designed with one goal in mind for the students.
“I want them to come to know the person of Jesus Christ,” he said. “Our day is very structured. We wake up. We go to Mass. In order to serve the poor, you have to become poor yourself. The only way to give Jesus is to make sure that He’s in you and the only way to do that is to receive Him in the sacraments, so I make them readily available. I pummel them with grace so they can be God’s hands and feet and so they can grow in holiness. That’s what I want for them.”
The students work hard and, after work is done, there is time for play back at St. Ann.
“We always do something like softball or kickball. Last night, we even had a talent show,” said Tober,
“Then, we always go to the church and we pray. We have praise and worship and there’s some spontaneous prayer and then we go to bed and we do it all over again the next day.”
This is the third year that Simone Lunt, a senior who is homeschooled, has traveled to Mississippi with the Catholic Central group to volunteer.
“It’s really sad. I’ve had so much fun. I’m really glad that I got to come this year,” said Lunt. “It’s really cool to come here and help because, first of all, we’re all on the same work site so we all work together and, while we get to know the people we’re working for, we also get to know each other really well. Also, this family is really hospitable and they really give more to us than we give to them. They don’t have very much but they’re giving us all this food and other stuff. I’ve really connected with them. Their children are homeschooled to so we got to exchange some stories.”
Lunt, who is Catholic, plans on attending a community college in the fall where she intends to major in a foreign language.
“I’d really like to go do some mission work after that,” she said. “It’s really something I’ve always wanted to do, but the work we’re doing (in Mississippi) is kind of like the precursor to that… so, when Mr. Tober told me about this, I was really excited and I’ve really enjoyed doing it these past three years.”
For Bridget Salisz, who is a senior at Catholic Central, this trip was her first to Mississippi to volunteer.
“Honestly, coming into Mississippi, I thought there was going to be more destruction than we’ve seen, but I was totally unprepared to see how bad things could still be for people,” she said. “It was really an eye opener to understand that, while things are kind of hidden on the outside, you have to look deeper to understand that people still need help.”
Salisz said the most rewarding part of the experience for her has been the gratitude expressed by the Alexander family.
“It’s just incredible to be able to work with them,” she said. “They appreciate it so much.”
“Words cannot explain how we feel about it,” Ronda Alexander said. “It’s just such a blessing to us. It’s just outstanding. I never knew that groups like this even existed.” Ronda Alexander’s husband, Roger, who will turn 60 in December moved to the Salvador Drive location with his parents when he was eight years-old.
She said a towering Oak tree that now casts shadows over the property was just a switch at the time when the family started building the house.
The home, which had two bedrooms and one bathroom suffered extensive water damage as a result of Katrina, so the family converted a sugar cane shed into living space for the family.
“We just turned it into a little house,” Ronda Alexander said.
As one group of volunteers went about the task of dismantling the family’s former home, Mark Hansen and his son Gabe, 14, worked on the inside of the family’s current living quarters.
“There are four people living in this little place right here,” Mark Hansen said. “There’s no hot water and no shower facilities. They’ve been doing sponge baths since the storm. We converted a toilet area and now we’re putting in a shower enclosure and sink and we’re installing a hot water heater so they’ll have hot water for showers and for cooking. We’re also putting in a slot sink so they can wash dishes because they’ve had no place to do any of that.”
Roger Alexander is a Holiness preacher and the family conducts Bible study in the home, so, to spruce up the interior, the group laid down throw rugs and hung up curtains. They also replaced the exterior siding, which was rotting.
“We’re trying to give them a decent place to live until they figure out whether they’re going to rebuild or bring in a mobile home,” Mark Hansen said.
For the Hansen family, the annual trip is truly a family affair.
“We have a family thing going,” Mark Hansen said. “My wife is secretary at the school. Our middle daughter has been here the last two years. Our oldest daughter, who is in her third year of college… came down with us this year and Gabe has come down every year with us. It’s been a regular family affair.”
Gabe Hansen said he enjoys coming to Mississippi to work.
“It feels good helping people,” he said.
And it makes Mark Hansen feel good to hear his son say those words.
“He’s learned more life lessons in humility every year,” said Mark Hansen, with tears in his eyes. “It’s good. It’s real good.”
Mark Hansen said the group learned when they came down three years ago that the jobs they could do were limited due to a lack of funding.
“So the kids, through all their networking and fundraisers, raise money to bring down so now we can buy dumpsters to tear a house down, we can put siding on and we can put showers and hot water heaters in. It’s made a big difference in what we can do.”
It’s a difference that not only brings tears to the eyes, but joy to the hearts of the volunteers and the Alexander family.
“Thank you is just not enough,” said Ronda Alexander. “It’s just been such a blessing to us. The first day, when they started tearing down the house, I just cried and cried and cried because there were so many good memories in that house. I couldn’t help but cry.”
As Ronda Alexander sat under a shade tree and watched the demolition work in progress, her cousin, Irma Shaw, expounded on some of those memories.
“When they pulled out the old sink that was used from generation to generation, knowing all the hands that had been in that sink to prepare meals and wash the dishes, it’s just been heartbreaking, but it’s been a blessing also,” Shaw said. “But… even though the house is gone, the memories are still there.”
And now the Alexanders have new memories to add to their collection, memories of their friends from Muskegon.
“We just felt like God sent them to us to help us. They were just like angels that God sent to us to help us,” Ronda Alexander said. “It’s just amazed us how God has helped us with so many things and I just want them to know that we appreciate them so much. I feel like we’ve made friends for life. We just appreciate them and love them so much.”
Printed with permission from Gulf Pine Catholic, newspaper for the Diocese of Biloxi, Mississippi.