Building hope in Katrina’s wake April 8, 2007

Norwich students complete a mud-out in a home in Gulfport, Miss.

photo by Alan LaneNorwich students complete a mud-out in a home in Gulfport, Miss.

For the second year in a row, two groups of Norwich students traveled south for Alternative Spring Break to build and work on homes damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina; a week later they returned home with amazing stories of hope.

Eight students and Assistant Commandant Alan Lane traveled to Gulfport, the second largest city in Mississippi, for the week of March 12-16. There they joined a legion of volunteers organized by the North Carolina Baptist Men (NCBM). Lane said the Norwich contingent was welcomed back with open arms. "We are getting a reputation since we've been down there before. When we walked in they said, 'Hey the Vermonters are here!'"

It’s not just about building houses — it's about helping people. It's about putting hope back in their lives.

–Alan Lane

Laboring nine hours a day, the team did everything from “mud-outs” (stripping everything out of the home because of water damage), to renovations (installing kitchen cabinets), to finish work (priming walls and painting ceilings). Lane described the work as physically demanding. “It's exhausting, you get pretty filthy.” But at the same time educational. "They are learning new skills, how to use a variety of tools,” Lane said.

According to Lane, one pre-requisite of the Alternative Spring Break experience is the ability to rough it. Each morning his team would sit down to breakfast with more than 300 other volunteers in an old National Guard Armory that had been taken over by the NCBM; at the end of the day they would return to their accommodations on the floor of the Broadmoor Baptist Church. “We would shower in the special trailers that they had rigged up in a semi,” Lane said. “It's not high class living, you go through a chow line, you sit down, eat your food.”

Before heading home, however, the group did manage to find time for some recreation. “On our last day there we went to the beach,” Lane said. “That night we took a tour of Bourbon Street and got to hear Steamboat Willie.”

Lane feels that the week was not so much about the actual work the students accomplished, but rather, how they affected the lives of the people they came in contact with — an amputee with a dog named 'Ghost’, a young couple with children, a woman named Mae with a dog named ‘Peanut’ that they bought treats for. “It's not just about building houses — it’s about helping people. It’s about putting hope back in their lives.”

St. Bernard’s Parish, Louisiana

While Lane's group labored in Gulfport, seventeen students and Senior Gift Officer Paul Bova ’88 traveled to St. Bernard’s Parish, La. over Spring Break to work for New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity (NOAHH). Working out of NOAHH’s headquarters at Camp Hope (housed in a former high school that had been destroyed by Katrina), they spent the first day landscaping in Musicians Village, 13 recently-built homes in an area funded and sponsored by Harry Connick, Jr. “When we arrived, we were asked to till and spread topsoil on the lawns so that grass and shrubbery could be planted,” Bova said.

The next two days were spent painting, woodworking and installing cabinetry and siding on a new home that will eventually be purchased by a family with the help of an interest-free loan, contingent upon the family’s completion of 350 hours of volunteer work. On Thursday, because of torrential rains, Bova’s team stayed at Camp Hope and constructed bunk beds for volunteers. “The kids worked like fiends,” Bova said. “Our group built more bunk beds than all other groups combined.”

On Friday the students spent most of the day at the home of a gentleman they had met at a sports bar the night before while watching the NCAA Basketball Tournament. After first removing all the debris from Katrina, they framed five exterior walls and laid the plywood floors over newly installed floor joists. “We accomplished more in five hours than the homeowner could have done in two months,” Bova said. Bova also mentioned that the man’s wife was so grateful she went out and bought two bushels of crawfish and cooked up a Cajun feast for the volunteers. “She told us, 'I thought I was living in a third world country, but now I know I'm living in America.’”

Like the Gulfport group, Bova's group traveled to the same area in 2006. “Last year’s trip was very emotional,” he said. “The destruction and devastation were indescribable.” What he found most shocking this year, however, was how little the area had changed in a year’s time. “It was incredible to see how little progress had been made. It makes you realize just how important the work you’re doing really is.”