Spring break service

March 31, 2006|by DON AINES


Tropical storms are not unknown in her native Trinidad, but even though six months had passed since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, Aliyah Johnson was taken aback by the scale of destruction she saw in Mississippi earlier this month.

"I'm used to hurricanes, so I didn't understand why it was such a big deal," Johnson told fellow Wilson College students recently at Thomson Hall.

That changed when she and a dozen other students traveled to D'Iberville, Miss., during the school's spring break earlier this month to lend a helping hand to the people of that community.


At a recent forum, she and other students recounted their experiences from the March 11-19 trip, during which they spent five days helping rebuild homes. Johnson recalled crying at the sight of a cross made from seashells that someone had arranged at the base of a statue brought down by the hurricane.

Many of the 7,600 people of the Biloxi Bay town still were living in trailers supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency months after the hurricane, but "they were starting to get their lives back together," Johnson said.

"I had never, ever encountered drywall," said Johnson of one of the jobs she did in a house undergoing repairs.

Many of the houses they worked on were weeks or months away from being habitable again, Wilson College Chaplain Kate Smanik-Moyes said. That included homes that had yet to be "mucked out" of the silt and debris the floods deposited last summer, she said.

"There's so many small towns that have been destroyed, but there's still so much hope" among the people, Smanik-Moyes said.

The Wilson women joined with other volunteers for the trip organized by Lend-A-Hand, a mission of the Presbytery of Carlisle, Pa., Smanik-Moyes said. Wilson students have been volunteering for alternative spring break programs for years, often to help build houses for Habitat for Humanity, she said.

"The idea of going to Mississippi came from the students," she said.

"I was really scared to go ... I didn't even know why I signed up for this trip," student Friday Dyar said. That anxiety disappeared when she got there and got to work, she said.

Though their homes were damaged or destroyed, the people of D'Iberville were both welcoming and generous to the volunteers, blowing kisses to them as their bus passed through town and feeding them while they worked, Dyar and other students said.

Ji Sun Maeng, a South Korean student at Wilson, worked on a plumbing crew that installed two toilets and three showers.

"I have had many meaningful memories of the USA ... but this trip will be most memorable to me," she said.

"I always felt the enthusiasm from all the people I worked with," said Yoon Sun Sung, another student from Korea. "It made me realize God is always with us in the middle of these tragedies."

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