Picking Up The Pieces
When Ben Downing ('08) went to storm-battered Mississippi over winter break, he found hope in the ruins of an old shed that had belonged to one woman's recently deceased father.
"She kept on talking about all the memories from the different little knick-knacks that her father had kept," said the urban and environmental planning and policy (UEP) graduate student. He was recounting the experience to more than 100 members of the Tufts community seated in a circle with him at a youth center in Gulfport, Miss. "If we weren't there, she probably would have just told the Army Corps to rip the shed down. But as a group of 12 kids, we were able to help her pick out what really matters to her, whether it's 30-year-old light bulbs or a couple of old sets of shelves."
As the group listened to Downing's story, a train sounded faintly in the distance.
"Life for everyone who lives down here, as it will be for us, is completely changed," Downing added. "The fact that now we can help them—even in very miniscule ways—to move on without losing that past, so much of which many of them have already lost, is a pretty incredible thing."
With that, he passed the microphone to the next person in the circle. Similar reflections continued for over an hour, as the group of 87 Tufts undergraduates, 12 graduate students and seven alumni shared their thoughts on helping people still struggling to recover nearly five months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast.
Organized as a Volunteer Vacation through the Leonard Carmichael Society, the Tufts volunteers spent a week of their winter vacation in the region helping with recovery efforts, working with a local nonprofit that paired them with needy families. Seniors Alexandra Kramer (A'06) and Rachel Rosen (A'06) planned the entire trip.
"I think it was a huge success," Kramer said. "People were able to understand what life is like for those who still live on the Gulf Coast and how much help they still need in order to rebuild."
While the group spent the week sleeping in below-freezing temperatures either on cots in a cramped room or in tents outside, they weren't about to complain.
"We have to remember that these are the kinds of conditions people down here have endured for over four months," said Tufts graduate Robyn Bornstein (A '04). "Some people are still living in tents."
"We decided to go to Mississippi instead of New Orleans because we wanted to go someplace equally deserving of aid, but that hadn't gotten the same press coverage and help," Kramer explained.
Tufts connected with approximately 20 different projects and families. While the jobs were mostly limited to cleanup work such as debris-clearing or demolition, one group of students helped build a house from the foundation up, as its future inhabitants watched from their FEMA trailer on the site.
"This is a hands-on way to make a difference," explained UEP graduate student Chris Mancini ('08). "We get the reward of seeing something actually accomplished at the end of the day."
"It's a way of really being able to execute what we study in school as far as trying to make a difference through public service and reaching out to areas you are not normally able to reach out to," added fellow UEP student Quincy Chang ('08).
Did you participate in hurricane recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast region? Share your experience with us for possible inclusion in future coverage.
The participants also valued the opportunity to bond with one another in such an important way. Upon their return to campus, they reflected on the meaning of the journey.
"It was truly amazing to be able to meet all these people from Tufts who I never would have met," said Bornstein. "The trip really added to my Tufts experience in a meaningful way."
Rosen agreed. "I was truly inspired to be working with a group of such talented, genuine, intelligent, and caring people."
A scene from coastal Mississippi.
"The Gulf Coast is still hurting"
Much of what still needs to be done on the Coast involves clearing the mounds of garbage still lining the streets. The trash, combined with the homes that were destroyed, has left much of the region unlivable. Children's toys, cooking supplies, hospital records and library books litter the ground in area parks and beaches.
"It may not seem like we're doing much, but walking along the beach, where everything is completely destroyed, you realize that there's just an unbelievable amount of clean up to still be done," said freshman Elizabeth Fusco (A'09).
One group of Tufts students spent a day clearing branches, garbage and fallen trees from a park in the Bayou View area of Gulfport. By evening, the park was clean and safe to walk through again.
"It showed that it doesn't have to take years and millions of dollars to make a difference," said UEP graduate student Nicole Guanzon ('08).
"There was a man that came through with his dogs, saying his dogs meant everything to him and he used to walk them everyday through the park, but since the storm he couldn't walk there," recounted Shaina Tofias (A'06). "But as we cleaned up he walked through and thanked us."
The students also visited the house of Verlon Herbert, whose son had seen a TV advertisement about the cleanup efforts and called for help.
When the volunteers arrived, they spent the morning spackling the walls, painting and filling in cracks, removing floor tiles and discarding damaged goods. Herbert tearfully struggled to part with her belongings.
"It's so hard, but I feel so blessed and grateful that you're here," she said.
While some students helped Herbert, others made their way up and down the streets asking other families if they needed any help.
"Our efforts were small, and it is going to take countless more people to do what we did in order to make true progress in the region," said Rosen. "I hope that people realize that even though the media frenzy over the hurricane is over, the Gulf Coast is still hurting."
Profile written by Rebecca Dince, Class of 2006
Rebecca Dince, a native of Brooklyn, New York, is a political science major and a communications and media studies minor. She has been a features editor at the Tufts Daily and has written for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Rebecca spent the fall of 2004 studying at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. She spent the summer interning for NBC News' Political Unit in New York City.
Photos by Melody Ko, University Photographer
This story originally ran on Feb. 6, 2006