Building breaks

Students skip beach time to help Coast

Thousands of college students from far and away have labored to rebuild the Gulf Coast since Katrina sent South Mississippi scrambling in 2005.

Their pay comes from the smiles, hugs and gratitude showered on them by those they serve while here.

“Money can’t buy that,” said Will Hansen, 26, a senior at Dominican College in New York. “It’s strictly from the heart. That’s something we all need and I saw a lot of it down there.”

Hansen grew up in Africa and said the devastation from Katrina reminds him of his homeland. He gave up his spring break earlier this month to make a Bay St. Louis home ready for a grateful family.

Hansen’s participation helped the homeowners, but like so many others, the volunteer learned to receive by giving.

“Being a part of a team that helped make a difference is a life experience I’ll always be grateful for and carry with me wherever I go,” he said.

Empowerment is a major motivation for the students who trade their vacations for hammers and paintbrushes, said the Rev. Elizabeth Wheatley-Jones, executive director of Mission on the Bay volunteer center.

She has met thousands of college-age volunteers, many on return visits, who bring their enthusiasm and youthful spirit to the Coast, buoying those still in recovery with their generosity.

“I’m sure they get back from their spring break and they need a spring break again,” she said.

She said the students demonstrate endless amounts of energy and great willingness to do things without being thanked.

Kudos are great, but the lessons they learn outside of their classrooms will advance them further, she said.

“The work they are doing is forming them to be phenomenal leaders wherever they land,” she said.

Kelsey Blum, director of volunteer recruitment for Camp Victor Ministries in Ocean Springs, said students come throughout the year on holidays and vacation, but this time of year is typically the busiest as colleges let out for spring break from late February to early April.

Each visitor to the volunteer center touches her heart, but some keep a grip on it.

Four students in a group working last month persevered through a car accident while sightseeing, a personal injury while working, family illness at home and the flu. But they focused on the drudge work at hand, cleaning a neglected trailer to be refurbished and given to a couple who had lost their home. She said that despite their own hardships, they took on the job with high spirits and were humbled by the situations they faced.

“They were so positive and so uplifting,” she said.

Almost two-thirds of all the volunteers who build for Habitat for Humanity Bay-Waveland are college students, said Dave Walker, director of communications. He expected to see about 650 during spring break, a record since Katrina.

He counts on the volunteer labor to get homes built and keys into clients’ hands, but said the students bring more to the Coast than free labor. He sees them as a tourist industry that could help move the community forward.

“The community should pounce on that,” he said. “If we could come together and really seize the moment, it could evolve into a regular industry for the Coast.”

Walker has seen volunteers from all over the United States and abroad target South Mississippi because of Katrina’s headlines.

“Katrina certainly devastated this community, but it brought the world to us,” he said.

Representatives of several agencies that rely on volunteer help said students give the Coast a sense of hope because of the energy and enthusiasm they share while here.

“They’re very much motivated to make a difference in their world,” Walker said.

“These kids bring a lot of energy and they’re motivated to get things done,” said Megg Potts with AmeriCorps.

“They are so enthusiastic, it is amazing,” said Lesley Black, director of operation for Hands on Gulf Coast.

The volunteers rejuvenate everyone they meet, she said. “It takes a special breed of young adults to want to give up their play time to get dirty and sweaty,” she said.

“I think they’re just remarkable. They’re very unselfish,” said Mary Tell, director of the Volunteer Center for the United Way of South Mississippi.

This is the fourth year United Way has hosted a week-long alternative spring break for college students.

“It’s the most joyful time of our whole year,” she said. “Every year, we fall in love with them.”

Hensen, the student from Dominican College, said his visit to the Coast taught him to find strength in perseverance.

“Seeing everybody down there being able to wake up with a smile on their face and being able to wake up day by day with a positive attitude changed my life,” he said. “They have a smile on their face as if nothing happened.”

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