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Homes of Service

Student Volunteers Help Build Homes in Katrina-Ravaged Town

By Michael Kaplan

“Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” This quote attributed to cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead captures the spirit of Notre Dame College’s annual alternative spring break trips. This year’s journey to Biloxi, Miss., a Gulf Coast town ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, was no exception, as 13 student volunteers embarked on a week of adventure, friendship and service.

Precision required: NDC students working on the "Kings" and "Queens"
Precision required: NDC students working on the "Kings" and "Queens"

Organized by Notre Dame’s Campus Ministry Office, we traveled to Biloxi to take up Habitat for Humanity’s “Collegiate Challenge,” a year-round alternative break program that connects students with one of the 200 Habitat affiliates throughout the country. Over the course of the week, we worked with Habitat officials and other volunteer groups to help construct a traditional Southern home.

We departed from campus at 4 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 26, and arrived in Biloxi the next day after visiting Nashville, Tenn., and spending the night at Holy Spirit Church in Huntsville, Ala. Shortly after we arrived at the Habitat site, we received our t-shirts, watched a safety video, and met the supervisors and other volunteers. Those of us who had attended previous Habitat trips said they had never seen so many volunteers at a site before.

After settling in, we decided to explore Biloxi and walk along the pier at the beach. The city is well on its way to recovery six years after Hurricane Katrina killed 53 residents and destroyed nearly 90 percent of the buildings along the coast in Biloxi and neighboring Gulfport. At the time, Katrina had torn several of Biloxi’s “floating” casinos off their supports and thrown them inland. Many of the city’s churches and its public library had also been destroyed or severely damaged, not to mention countless private homes.

Since then, casinos, churches, libraries and shopping centers have re-opened. Much of the city’s recovery is due to Habitat for Humanity, which has been involved in the construction of 400 homes in the area. We would take part in building one of these homes over the next several days.

But before our work began on Tuesday, we had a day off on Monday to visit New Orleans. Entering the city, we witnessed some devastation that was still left by Hurricane Katrina. What used to be million-dollar homes now looked like they were part of the slums. One image that particularly stuck with us was that of a play set completely twisted around a tree. But it wasn’t going to be the last impression we would get of Katrina’s destructive force.

Blocking: NDC students built the foundation for a home in Biloxi.
Blocking: NDC students built the foundation for a home in Biloxi.

The next day we arrived at the Habitat site at 8 a.m. Site supervisor Don and AmeriCorps supervisor Chris quickly introduced us to our work – the difficult task of blocking. Blocking is the fitting of blocks that form the foundation under the flooring. Since Mississippi law requires that houses need to be at least six feet off the ground, we had to fit the blocks while standing on ladders and beams. After we finally got the hang of it, things started to go smoothly. Working as a group was key in bringing everyone together and becoming a team.

After lunch break, we received a surprise tour of Biloxi, an experience none of us will ever forget. We got onto a charter bus with other volunteers from Montana to see the damage still left by Hurricane Katrina and visit the victims’ memorial, which had been built by the crew and volunteers of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”

Our tour guide Scott shared with us his story of living through the hurricane and some tear-jerking stories of its victims. Scott had been a bus driver who evacuated people from New Orleans and Biloxi to Texas. His stories gave us an insight into the devastation caused by Katrina and the difference we volunteers are making to families in the area.

The next day, work consisted of finishing the blocking and setting up the foundation for the flooring. With the help of the more experienced Montana group, we were able to fly through the job. It was satisfying to see how much we got done in a few hours.

Work day No. 3 was the most challenging and frustrating one, as we worked on “Kings” and “Queens.” These are the names for two pieces of wood – one a little bit smaller than the other – that are placed on top of each other and nailed together. The tricky part was that the pieces needed to be flush, meaning that all of the sides needed to be perfectly in line. Habitat for Humanity work demands quality and dedication.

Mission accomplished: The Notre Dame students proudly show off their work.
Mission accomplished: The Notre Dame students proudly show off their work.

Our last day of work dawned upon us with a forecast of thunderstorms. But thankfully it was still warm. Undeterred, we laid the complete subfloor for the house. Our blocking was strong and secure.

For lunch, some of us decided to try a local burger joint called “Burger-Burger,” whose famous concoction was an 18-inch hoagie loaded with hamburger meat and a secret chili cheese sauce. Going to these nearby establishments gave us a chance to talk to some of the locals. It was great to hear the thanks we received from many people for working with Habitat. It was evident they were grateful for what we were doing, and it was amazing to know we were doing something that really mattered.

We found that what we did during the week had a huge impact on not only a single family but a whole community. With all the devastation still left by Hurricane Katrina, it was nice to know that we played a small role in the recovery. That is something to be proud of and carry with us always.

The long trip home allowed each of us to think of the places we had visited, the people we had met, and the impact we had had. It gave us time to internalize our feelings and to think of our alternative spring break. It was a good feeling.

Mike Kaplan is a senior majoring in management information systems at Notre Dame College.