Volunteering for the post-hurricane clean-up efforts in the Southern town of Kiln, Miss., proved a life-changing experience for nearly two dozen CMC students over fall break. Situated in Hancock County, with a population not much higher than 2,000, Katrina's Category 5 ferocity left Kiln's 13-mile landscape a snarl of debris and fallen trees, and most of its properties mud-drenched and irreparably damaged.
After a long day spent clearing homes of furniture and other personal belongings, it was not uncommon to observe a classmate back at the FEMA tent camp, crying on the shoulder of another volunteer. The first-hand knowledge of devastation and displaced lives was emotionally battering. "Many of the people living in Kiln have absolutely nothing," says Candice Camargo '07, who, with Aria Ash-Rafzadeh '06, served as co-group leader of last month's student effort. "We were helping these people tear out everything that had been damaged in their homes, and each time you'd pick something up, you knew you were throwing away a piece of their lives," says Camargo. "It was emotionally very difficult. Not a single person in our group was unaffected by that."
But it's not with sadness that Camargo and Ash-Rafzadeh recall the trip. On the contrary, what touched them mostand proved a life-altering experiencewas "how powerful and strong the human spirit can be." In fact, says Camargo, "when we were there, the people in Mississippi are very big on letting you know that they are not victims. They are survivors."
More than 40 CMC students applied for the Mississippi trip last month. They partnered with Jewish-based volunteer organization Nechama, which organizes and trains people in cleanup assistance for homes and businesses affected by natural disaster. Funding and size restrictions limited the final pool of volunteers to 21, and on the evening of Oct. 13, the group boarded a plane, along with eight Pitzer College students, and headed south. (Read full story: http://www.claremontmckenna.edu/news/pressreleases/article.asp?article_id=601).
Arriving in Kiln, students checked into FEMA's tent camp, where they had access to trailers with hot showers, air-conditioning, and wireless capabilities. Because FEMA recommends a 7,000 calorie-a-day diet to meet the physicality of the volunteer work, Southern, deep-fried cooking and an around-the-clock spread of cookies, candy bars, soda, and water also was at the ready.
"It was pretty luxurious under the circumstances," Camargo says. "We felt very rested every night, and I can't imagine we would have had trouble staying any longer than we did."
The mornings were marked with some measure of guilt, however, as volunteers navigated the roads to their assignments with survivors, who either were living in tents directly outside their uninhabitable homes, or in trailers dispatched by FEMA. Yet despite their makeshift living conditions, survivors responded gratefully when students arrived to provide assistance. One woman cried after learning that the volunteers had traveled all the way from the Los Angeles area to help. "A lot of the survivors just wanted to talk with someone who was not personally affected by the hurricane, and get it all out," Ash-Rafzadeh says. "It's hard for them to talk to their neighbors and friends, who are all going through the same thing. They need another perspective."
Camargo recalls meeting an unemployed woman whose house was destroyed, followed by her husband losing his job. The couple's grown children, students at colleges in Mississippi, were now working odd jobs until they could safely return to their studies. "She had nothing," Camargo says, "and yet she went out and bought pizzas and milkshakes for all of us at lunch, and insisted that we eat."
Another woman still felt like one of the lucky ones; although years of work on her home had been lost in an instant, her children escaped unharmed. Says Ash-Rafzadeh, "She told us that you can always rebuild things, but you can't rebuild a life."
Outside the homes, students hauled fallen trees and piles of branches and brush to the streets for pick-up. Inside, they gutted the structures of all personal belongings and d?cor damaged by the hurricane. As interiors were being cleared out, students would then begin the process of "mucking," bailing bucket after bucket of thick mud from the home's saturated floors.
Because the houses must be gutted before FEMA inspects them, the need for human labor in the South is at a premium. "They simply don't have the manpower they need," Camargo says.
CMCers estimate having performed about $100,000 worth of labor during their five-day stay in Kiln, given currents rates of about $30,000 to muck a house, and $1,000 for removal of trees and brush.
John Roth, the Edward J. Sexton Professor of Philosophy and director of the Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights at CMC, says the students' humanitarian service in the ravaged Gulf Coast areas is very much in accord with the College's mission "to provide leadership to meet our country's and our world's needs."
"This trip was a life-changing experience," says Camargo, noting in particular how the devastation crossed socioeconomic lines and affected the poorest of Kiln residents to the wealthiest, whose coastal mansions also were destroyed. "It really renewed my faith in the world, and affirmed the optimism of human nature."
CMC's assistance in Hurricane relief is continuing beyond last month's trip to the Gulf Coast. Joanna Repsold '06 says members of the Student Advisory Committee for the Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights have contracted to organize an Alumni Assistance Network, asking the CMC alumni association to lend as-needed support through donations and resources.
The Assistance Network already has provided students and teachers of an elementary school in D'iberville, Miss., with sheets, towels, blankets, sock, shoes, and coats, andfor the holidaysis asking for donations of new toys to benefit Mississippi families.
For more information about helping or donating: Joanna Repsold: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 310-339-7173.
Toys may also be dropped off directly at the Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights, 850 Columbia Ave.