May 28, 2007


Build-A-Thon -- Biloxi/Gulfport -- May 2007

Two days ago I returned from a week in the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

On the first flight there I sat beside a woman named Kim who was holding her very adorable 22-month-old daughter Ashley. I was on my way to the Americorps Build-A-Thon. The two most important things I brought with me were my hammer (which got a lot of use) and my camera (which I wish I could have used more).

The Build-A-Thon is a week long event, usually in Spring, where Americorps (which if is an organization you aren't familiar with, is maybe best described as the domestic version of the Peace Corps) who are working on behalf of Habitat for Humanity from all over the country come together to build a lot of houses at once.

This year the Build-A-Thon was in the Mississippi Gulf Coast to help rebuild areas affected by Hurricane Katrina in the Fall of 2005. Our goal was 20 houses, we had 600 volunteers, about 20 per house; the rest provided hospitality for those doing construction.

This was my first Build-A-Thon experience. They took great care of us during the week, at the camp we stayed and at the work site. The camp was once a local football stadium named 'Yankie Stadium'. After Katrina, the Salvation Army bought the stadium to be used as a volunteer housing facility for the relief effort in the Mississippi Gulf region. They turned the large bleachers, which had areas under the seats that formally housed concession stands showers and bathrooms for teams, into dorms with bunk beds and a recreation area for meals and relaxing and watching TV or playing ping-pong. The bleachers under which I lived for the week were named: Volunteer Village.

Between the two stadiums-turned-living areas was the football field, two thirds of which was available for playing soccer, volleyball, or Ultimate Firsbee (a true athletes' sport), and in the other third of the field was a large red and white tent under which dinner was served each night. At the camp there were guards 24/7 because that part of Biloxi was, as they said, not exactly the safest part of town. Although the few times I walked around the areas surrounding the camp, usually in a group I should note, I never felt unsafe; and there was even a moment when a man stopped his car, rolled down the window, recognizing that we were with Habitat for Humanity, and thanked us for being there.

In my room, sleeping in the bunk under mine was a man named Less who I would later find out joined Americorps after retiring from the US Coast Guard with 22 years of service. I told him about my brother who had also served in the Coast Guard, and he told me about some of the lesser known things the Coast Guard get involved in, which was pretty interesting.

The first full day there, Sunday, was orientation and opening ceremonies. During the ceremony there was a moment when they announced that they would be loading shingles onto the roof with a bobcat to which many people cheered. That night my Americorps roommates and I walked to the closest Casino to check it out. Monday through Friday were build days. On the 40 minute bus ride to the build site in Gulfport from our camp in Biloxi each day on the road by the ocean I saw where once there had been homes, businesses, restaurants, shopping malls, gas stations, and so on. Most of the time there were only foundations remaining. This was my first time to travel anywhere affected by Hurricane Katrina. And having seen what looked like a society that had been washed away I realized that at least for myself I don't think about what happened there every day so it's easy not to realize that there are people still living with it every day.

The first day of building we stood up the front and back walls. That morning I spent a lot of time making measurements on boards to be cut for the walls. By the end of the fourth day we finished sheathing the roof with plywood and loaded the shingles on the roof with the bobcat. At first it was more than a little uneasy to walk on the roof, but after awhile I stopped having to think about each step I was going to take. Going to the edge was still 'pretty freaky', and now that I think about it, 'the edge' is a really good metaphor for approaching anything that is pretty freaky. At the end of the last day (which was cut short due to closing ceramonies) we just bairly finished shingling the roof.

All week long they gave us plenty of water, and I drank more of it than I think I ever have in one time in my life. It was so hot, and I was so thirsty. Most of it left my body in the form of sweat. The week went so fast, and I think it is truly an amazing opportunity for all involved.

You can see many other pictures I took during the week here.

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