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After Katrina: Mission to Mississippi

After Katrina: Mission to Mississippi
It seems they couldn't stay home and just watch.
KSC students and alumni gave up weeks to answer a call from the Gulf Coast.

Photo: Red Cross van by Ann Card
"Go forth to serve," the "results" half of the College motto, may mean volunteering in a soup kitchen, coaching Little League, working as a teacher or firefighter. For some Keene State students and alumni this fall, it meant "drop everything and head for the Gulf" to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the region on August 29. Here are some of their stories. Although they differ in their details, the stories all offer this testimony: The impulse to help is strong, and a caring individual can make a difference.

Christine White '05
Stay Positive, Smile, and Remember
Christine, at age 23, was a veteran volunteer before Katrina. She spent 10 months in AmeriCorps right after high school and was already trained for Red Cross disaster relief. "AmeriCorps gave me money to go to school," she said, "and inspired a focus on teaching." At Keene State, Christine studied social science and Spanish, with a degree in teaching high school social studies. During her college years, she spent three weeks in New York City as a caseworker during the winter after 9/11, traveled to the Dominican Republic and Guatemala on Habitat for Humanity missions, and participated in many other community service activities.

I think the biggest way I helped was by being positive, smiling, listening to people's stories, remembering people's names. "The Red Cross was desperate for help after Katrina. They called me, I left my waitressing job, and I flew to Montgomery, Alabama, the staging area, on September 4," she said. "I went to a central shelter in Hurley, Mississippi, near Biloxi. Communications were so bad that no one knew about the 1,000 people who were there in a large gym with no food, nothing. We did what the Red Cross calls mass care – simply helping with the basics of food, childcare, security. It was so hard to wait for help, so demoralizing for the people. At one point FEMA gave out an 800 number that turned out to be a dating hotline.

"After two weeks it started to get more organized, and people began leaving the shelter. I think the biggest way I helped was by being positive, smiling, listening to people's stories, remembering people's names. The local churches and other organizations – the ones who weren't tied up in bureaucracy – did the best job of helping. They simply trusted people."

Christine flew back to New Hampshire and got into Keene at 2 a.m. on September 19. At 7 a.m., she was at Keene High to start a new job as a special education teacher for the semester. She would like to go back to the Gulf and help more.

Photo: Patricia and William Doolan William Doolan '64
Patricia Reed Doolan '62
Listening Patiently to Stories of Loss
Bill and Pat Doolan of Newton, N.J., volunteered through the American Red Cross and spent more than two weeks in Brookhaven, Miss., at a service center for refugees. Bill and Pat spent hours each day interviewing clients and providing them with short-term financial help, listening patiently to story after story of loss and anxiety. The center where they worked distributed more than $8 million.

The Doolans also traveled 150 miles to Biloxi and Gulfport, coastal communities devastated by the storm. "We brought a lot of cold water, fruit, and snacks to pass out to the rescue workers," Bill reported. "The damage we saw there was more significant than what we saw in New Orleans. The day we were there, people who were clearing the storm drains told us that they found five live alligators. Animal control experts safely removed them.

"It was a tiring and stressful experience and we were glad to get back home, but we are happy that we went down to help," he concluded.

Photo: Kristen Cote Kristen Cote '05
"I Want to Make a Difference"

Kristen left Keene State with a degree in physical education and a yen for travel and teamwork. She found them in AmeriCorps, the national community service program, which sent her to Sacramento, Calif., in September for training. As the magnitude of the Gulf Coast destruction became apparent, Kristen's team got its first assignment: disaster relief near Biloxi, Miss. She tossed her bag onto a cot in a warehouse-turned-shelter and spent the month of October on a demolition crew, helping to rip out sodden walls and floors and "blue-roof" (cover with a blue plastic tarp) salvageable buildings.

"The work was intense," said Kristen, who regularly put in 12-hour days on the demolition crew, "but we wanted to do more. I also spent a lot of time talking to victims, listening over and over to their stories – crazy, scary stories. I had volunteered at places like the Community Kitchen and the Walk for Hunger, but I've never seen anything like this."

When her AmeriCorps year is over, Kristen plans to come back to New Hampshire – "where my heart is" – and find a teaching job in her field. "Keene State helped me to be a stronger human being, able to accomplish things on my own," she said. "Now I want to help communities – I want to make a difference, to be a positive role model for kids."

Photo: Mark Luithle Mark Luithle '84
Inventing His Own Rescue Mission

Mark felt called to help: "I sat day after day watching TV and felt compelled to make the trip. I'd never even thought about volunteering like this, but something touched me and I had to go."

Mark, who owns a floor-covering business in Basking Ridge, N.J., invented his own rescue mission. He and another man decided to set up a tent village for volunteers somewhere around Biloxi, an epicenter of severe damage. The Rotary Club in Morris Plains, N.J., offered to help with expenses. Mark called Cabela Outfitters in Pennsylvania and the company promised him heavy military-style tents; people in Mark's community came forward with basics like water, diapers, batteries, and gallons of cleaning supplies. Cheered on by his family, Mark closed up his business, rented a 24' Ryder truck, stopped at Cabela's long enough to load up, and was on the ground in Mississippi within 12 days of the storm. On the way, he got in touch with Volunteer Mobile, a relief organization, to let them know he was coming.

The scope of the disaster is so overwhelming. In Biloxi we were looking at an area 50 times the size of the city of Keene, totally flattened, nothing left. "We drove into Biloxi looking for a secure place to set up our tents, and saw a group of ball fields near Mercy Cross High School, owned by the Catholic Diocese of Biloxi. The school was destroyed, but we got permission to use the ball fields and set up 13 tents and all our gear. We housed a 60-person group from Staten Island who were running a kitchen that fed 4,500 people a day. We took care of the tent village and security for the site, and also helped in any other way we could.

"The scope of the disaster is so overwhelming. In Biloxi we were looking at an area 50 times the size of the city of Keene, totally flattened, nothing left. I asked a Mississippi Power Co. worker, ‘How do you figure out where to start?' He looked at me and said, ‘With you. Each person who comes here is a start.'

"When I left to go home and reopen my business, I broke down – it was so hard to leave. I met some great people, and I'll never forget their stories. The experience changed my life."

Photo: With disaster-relief training and a KSC major in safety studies, Tim Sinclair (right) helped supervise a shelter for 100 Red Cross workers. Tim Sinclair '06
The Power of a Handshake and a Smile

Tim, whose hometown is Midland Park, N.J., was brought up to help people in need. His father works for Star of Hope Ministries, an ecumenical organization working in inner-city schools in New Jersey. His grandparents served for 50 years in the Salvation Army. Tim had gone on numerous mission trips during high school. So when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast on the first day of classes, Tim, a safety studies major in his last semester of classes, wanted to do his part to help. With the support of his professors and family, he did Red Cross disaster training and on September 16 flew south.

Tim was assigned a desk job doing damage assessment, but he respectfully asked for another task. "I thought I'd do better getting my hands dirty, and I wanted to use some of my safety and management skills."

The Red Cross immediately appointed him second in command of a shelter for disaster workers in an old Fruit of the Loom factory in Woodville, Miss., about 100 miles north of New Orleans. He and his partner had to figure out how to provide security, water, food, sanitation, and beds for 100 Red Cross workers who were there to help as many as 14,000 hurricane victims. Averaging about three hours' sleep a night, they kept the shelter humming, dealing with sanitation and health, local politics, lost puppies, and frustrated residents. Tim worked beside 12 convicts who had been released on good behavior. "They went over the top to help," he reported. "People really do rise to the occasion."

Tim stayed for 17 days, returning to his classes to report on how he had put his education to good use. "I learned a lot about myself," Tim said. "I didn't know I was good under pressure, that I could think on my feet and make good decisions. I learned the power of a handshake and a smile."

Tim is considering job offers after graduation, but may first return to the Gulf in January to help with the reconstruction.

Susan Peery is associate editor of Keene State Today.