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Volunteer Vacation in Biloxi, Mississippi

This spring I traveled to Mississippi for a different kind of trip than I’d ever taken before: a volunteer vacation. After seeing poverty first-hand in Morocco last year, I’d been looking for a chance to take a trip that was about more than just sightseeing; I wanted to get my hands dirty and do something to directly help the communities I traveled to.

I got my chance when my parents told me they were going with a church group to help with hurricane rebuilding in Biloxi, Mississippi. Their church joined up with several others within the United Church of Christ to send a group of 18 to the Gulf Coast. We would be staying at the Back Bay Mission for a week, working Monday through Friday on the construction of a new house for a couple who had lost their home in Hurricane Katrina.

I had absolutely zero construction experience to contribute to the project, but I signed up anyway and hoped for the best, figuring they’d find something for me to do — even if it was just fetching tools for the folks doing the “real” work!

Saturday and Sunday
We flew on AirTran from Baltimore to Gulfport/Biloxi, connecting in Atlanta; both flights were smooth and easy, and no one lost any luggage. We piled into two rental vans and headed toward the Back Bay Mission under a cloudy gray sky. The Back Bay Mission was less than a half hour from the airport and was much nicer than I expected. When I first heard we’d be living in trailers, I prepared myself to rough it, but these were new and spacious and clean. I ended up sharing a dorm room (with bunk beds) and a bathroom with my parents. Other than my mom’s snoring, I couldn’t have been more comfortable!

The next morning we headed to New Orleans and got our first real look at how the Gulf Coast is recovering — or not — from Katrina. Some areas seemed to be doing just fine, such as Biloxi’s hulking waterfront casinos and some truly enormous historic homes that looked out over the Gulf. But there were also plenty of FEMA trailers, empty or rubble-filled lots, and small houses that had been rebuilt on stilts (to better survive any future floods).

It was about a two-hour drive to New Orleans, where our first stop was Beecher Memorial United Church of Christ, an African-American church in the heart of a neighborhood that was clearly still struggling to recover from the hurricane. The church itself was just a shell; inside the sanctuary the walls had been reduced to studs, while the other rooms were empty and awaiting reconstruction.

Our group of 17 made up a good half of the tiny congregation, which welcomed us warmly. At the end of the service they stood and sang a benediction to us, wishing us well in our work that week — a gesture I found both moving and humbling.

After the service we drove through some very poor neighborhoods en route to the French Quarter. It was very striking to see how the scenery changed within a few short blocks from crumbling buildings and extreme poverty to gorgeous historic buildings and tons of tourists. We parked in the French Quarter and had several hours to explore, starting with a walk along the riverfront (where we saw but didn’t visit the aquarium, and stopped for some photos of boats and barges on the Mississippi River).

We had lunch at the Gally House, a casual seafood restaurant on the corner of Toulouse and Chartres. I ordered a Greek salad with shrimp, which was delicious, while another member of our party got a huge plate of crayfish (complete with shells and beady little eyes!). One member of our group was having a birthday that week, so the waiter treated him to a yummy Bananas Foster cake with whipped cream. Luckily for all of us, it got passed around the table.

Afterward we headed to the famous Cafe du Monde for beignets (touristy as heck, but fun). The place was absolutely packed; the trick to getting a table was to stand in the middle of everything, wait for someone to leave and then pounce on their table. The beignets reminded me a little bit of funnel cake with all the powdered sugar — as you’d imagine, we made quite a mess eating them. As we munched, we had a good laugh over a sign being carried by a couple of born again Christians on the corner. At the top of the sign was: “Why do you love the devil?” Below it was an impressively comprehensive list of folks who apparently love the devil: Democrats, feminists, environmentalists, Mormons, wife beaters, racists, government recipients, emo’s, sports nuts, loud mouth women and effeminate men (to name a few). Alas for my immortal soul, I fall into several of those categories and have no plans to change!

We spent another hour or so wandering around the French Quarter just to get a feel for the place. In that short span of time we came across at least three different street musicians/bands, all of them talented. Unfortunately we also came across a major spot of rain, so we all got drenched pretty thoroughly right before we had to go back into the vans for the ride back to Biloxi. I wish I’d had a few more hours — no, days! — to explore New Orleans, because just that little taste wasn’t enough. But hopefully I will go back someday soon.

Monday
Our group hit the job site early — 7:30 a.m. — to take advantage of the cooler morning hours. The house we were working on was in D’Iberville, about 10 minutes from our trailers in Biloxi. When we first arrived, it consisted basically of a floor up on concrete stilts.

The house next door was also under construction (and was further along than ours), but throughout the rest of the neighborhood, all we saw were concrete slabs where homes used to be. Later in the week I walked around those slabs and was saddened to see a few remnants of the families that once lived here — peeling tiles on a kitchen floor, a shattered smoke alarm, a child’s action figure. It was hard not to wonder where these families were now and what had happened to them in the storm.

We worked until about 3:30, framing three of our house’s four walls. Our team had several very experienced carpenters who led the project, while the less skilled among us worked on our hammering skills. (It was ugly at first, but by the end of the week I had lowered my “hits per nail” average from about 25 to 7 or so — less if I was using really short nails.) Despite a few snafus, we had a solid first day of work.

Tuesday
Work continued on the house for most of us today, but a few other folks and I ended up working on a storage shed at the Back Bay Mission (where we were staying). It may have been a little less glamorous to work on a shed than a house, but I was still contributing to the overall effort of the organization — and I learned to use a circular saw!

In the evening we took a field trip to see Biloxi’s Hurricane Katrina Memorial. It had three parts: a long white wall with a wave of water splashed in mosaic across its length, a very high black granite wall marking the height of the storm surge that hit Biloxi, and a glass case displaying various objects recovered from the debris after the storm (a beer stein, a child’s watch, porcelain knickknacks). Apparently the memorial was constructed by an “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” team.

A few of us walked a bit along Biloxi’s beach after taking in the memorial; it was clean and quiet. We also popped into the Beau Rivage casino, which as casinos go was reasonably classy-looking (though the same couldn’t be said for the teeny-tiny skirts on the cocktail waitresses). The casinos, which used to be on barges before the storm but are now on the mainland, have for better or worse been a big part of Biloxi’s rebuilding process, drawing visitors and creating a tax base that helps support the local government.

Wednesday

I spent part of my day back at the Back Bay shed, learning how to shingle a roof, but I also got the chance to volunteer at Loaves and Fishes, which I believe is Biloxi’s only soup kitchen. It was an interesting experience; we served about 80 people, mostly men, and about an even mix of black and white. I didn’t get to interact much with any of the folks we served, but many of them seemed to be return visitors and had a clear rapport with the regular staffers.

In the evening we attended a revival at a big African-American church. On the bill were a guest evangelist from another church in Mississippi, a praise band, several choirs, several deacons/evangelists/pastors from the host church, and evena small mime troupe. Our group was part of the service too — as a makeshift choir that fumbled through several gospel pieces before returning to our pews to the sound of kind (but relieved) applause from the congregation.

The whole revival probably took about two and a half hours, and was vastly different than any other church service I’d ever attended. (At times it felt almost like a rock concert, with the visiting evangelist as lead singer.) I was fascinated by — and grateful for — the experience.

Thursday
I volunteered at Loaves and Fishes again today; this time another volunteer and I got to help make the main course, shepherd’s pie. At first we took our time layering the ingredients, using a spatula to smooth the mashed potatoes into aesthetically pleasing swirls, but then the cook came up and joked, “Hey, you know, this isn’t the Sistine Chapel. We’ve gotta serve in 10 minutes — can you hurry it up a bit?” So we did, and shepherd’s pie went out (on time) to 80 hungry people. Apparently this particular dish is quite the crowd-pleaser.

Back at the trailers, we had our own special dinner feast that night: a shrimp boil. I don’t know what sort of seasoning was on it, but I have never had shrimp so good! It was served in huge plastic bowls and eaten with our fingers, and we threw the shells straight onto plastic tablecloths for quick cleanup. Easily the best meal of the week!

Friday
After several days working on other projects, I finally got the chance to return to our house. What a difference! All four walls were on, and so was the roof. We spent the final day putting on a front deck and cleaning up a bit inside the house.

There’s still quite a bit of work to be done before the homeowners can move in, but we accomplished a lot in our five days of work, and the groups to come after us will carry on the task.

That night I met a college friend for dinner in Ocean Springs, about 15 minutes east of Biloxi. It’s a very cute little town with lots of restaurants and boutiques, though unfortunately many of these were closed by the time we got there. We had dinner at the Bayview Gourmet (a bit of a misnomer, since there was no bay in sight). The food was good and reasonably priced; I continued my seafood kick with a salad topped with stuffed shrimp, while my friend ordered a “Craburger” (how that differs from a crab cake I couldn’t tell you).

I ended the evening with a visit to the Hard Rock Cafe in Biloxi, which I liked better than the Beau Rivage — the crowd was much younger and more diverse, and they had a live cover band that brought some energy and good music to the place. My friend and I managed to play the slots for an hour and half on just $10; unlike some casinos in other parts of the country, this one still has penny slots for the cheapskates (like me!).

Saturday
We didn’t do much today except clean up the trailers and drive around Biloxi for a few last photo ops. Then it was time to fly home after a very rewarding week. I took home many things from this trip — like new friendships, new hammering skills, and New Orleans postcards — but most importantly, I saw for myself both the resilience of the Gulf Coast communities and their continuing need for help even two and a half years after Katrina. I’m grateful for the chance to have contributed to the relief effort in my own small way.

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