An Alternative Spring Break: The Forgotten Gulf Coast
From left: Jenny Poliwka '09, Sara Laney '10, Jamie Stroleny '10 and Brendan Sullivan
A first-person report by:
Jamie Stroleny '10, Sara Laney '10, Jennifer Poliwk '09, Brendan Sullivan '08, Residence
Hall Director Roshaunda Ross and Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life Danielle
While our friends were tanning on the beach in Miami during spring break, we ventured
on Illinois Wesleyan University’s first Alternative Spring Break trip to spend a week
in the Hurricane Katrina devastated community, Pascagoula, Mississippi. Students,
freshmen Jamie Stroleny (Education), Sara Laney (Sociology), Sophmore Jennifer Poliwka
(Nursing), and Senior Brenden Sullivan (History) were mudding walls, hanging drywall,
and keeping our eyes peeled for deadly spiders. It may not sound like the ideal spring
break, but it was. With humor, creativity, and planning we had a great time helping
the citizens of the forgotten Gulf Coast with Hurricane Katrina rebuilding.
We arrived at our destination at 6am in the morning and joined dozens of volunteers
from around the country, including Kansas City, University of Illinois, Franklin Pierce
College, and South Birmingham. Each day was a surprise. Each day was an adventure.
And each day was a learning experience that helped us grow closer to the people and
environment of Mississippi.
For two days of the trip, we helped a man named Kermit, whose house had been struck
by a tornado that spun off when Hurricane Katrina touched land. We spent the two days
picking up debris that was deposited throughout his yard. We learned how to hang drywall
and put up ceilings in three rooms. We also sorted through piles of wood, saving
every scrap that could be reused. Kermit was running low on money after his insurance
company told him that they would not give him any money to rebuild. He had to work
with what he had—a house that had been picked up into the air and rotated almost 180
degrees before crashing back down to the ground. Using their bare hands, Kermit and
his son rotated the house into its original position. Even with their best attempts
the house still was not completely level. The walls weren’t even with what should
have been the ceiling, there was no furniture in the house, and mold had started to
grow. However, through it all Kermit and his family kept faith, symbolized by crosses
that were hung in each room of the house.
Other projects through out the week included insulating a ceiling, putting up light
fixtures and vents, and cleaning up a back yard which, unfortunately, was full of
dog poop. We helped at a home of a family that was expecting the arrival of a new
baby in only 3 weeks and at a nursing home anxious to re-open. We worked in Operation
TLC’s warehouse and, while avoiding spiders, we reorganized donated furniture and
paint, all of which would be given to the residents of Pascagoula for free.
One night, the founders of Operation TLC, the volunteer organization that housed,
fed and provided us projects, drove it home why we came. Though Tammy and Annie’s
paths crossed for only three days while working for the American Red Cross, these
women recognized a need for refrigerators and stoves for hurricane victims. Due to
the devastation these two women moved to Mississippi, and created the organization
Mississippi Home Again, which provides the most fundamental, most costly household
essentials. They explained to us that the need for volunteers is extremely great
in Mississippi, but the majority of the country does not realize this need. Mississippi
is the poorest state in the nation and Jackson County, where we worked, is the poorest
county in the poorest state. Help is needed at a critical level, as proven by the
current suicide rate for the community, which has increased in this area by about
900%. Due to the need for dire help in Mississippi Tammy and Annie created a volunteer
organization that would offer housing, food and projects for people who are able to
help those in Mississippi, and hence Operation TLC. Operation TLC was staffed by
volunteers from the Americorps organization. Although relatively unknown to us prior
to our trip, Americorps provides a great deal of service to the American people.
For 10 months these 18-24 year olds donate their time, helping people to put their
lives together. The Americorp volunteers at Operation TLC coordinated the volunteers,
project sites, tools, and housing. Their volunteer efforts helped to provide us with
an outstanding experience.
We headed down to Mississippi with the apprehensions that one would have about spending
a week in a natural disaster area. Through our experiences we learned of the devastation
that still exists for so many residents. We were able to provide a small sliver of
hope to people who were hopeless and while we were able to create a positive impact
for the Jackson County community, they left a much larger impact on our lives. By
weeks end we agreed that it was us who had benefited the most from a journey to the
forgotten Gulf Coast. We have arrived back to the Illinois Wesleyan University campus
as different people. Our vision of the world has been changed; we are more aware
of the world around us and more aware of our ability to make a difference in the world.