Students learn to make a difference


By Kathy L. Gilbert

United Methodist News Service

GULFPORT — Andy Bernert woke up early on his first day of spring break on the floor of the sanctuary at Gateway United Methodist Church.

Bernert and 45 of his fellow classmates from Purcell Marion High School, Cincinnati, drove down to Mississippi to spend their spring break helping residents clean up after Hurricane Katrina.

After the early wakeup call, the students piled into several vans and headed out for Camp Wilkes, a Boy Scout camp that was hit by a 35-foot tidal wave.

A.J. Stanovich, caretaker, gathered the students together for a little history lesson, pep talk and to emphasize the need to always be safe. “Don’t step on any wood. Last week we had a lady walk right out of here, step on a piece of wood and ended up with a nail in her foot.”

He says the camp had the capacity to house 299 people before the storm. Stanovich says, “You won’t believe what it looked like, we had a 65-foot steel hulled shrimp boat deposited on the property.”

Ida Punco, who describes herself as a “local yokel” was also at the camp helping in the cleanup. She says the hospital she was born in, her parent’s home and her grandparent’s home were all destroyed by the “demon-driven waters.”

“You don’t know how much it means to us to have you all here,” she says to some students.

The students from the Catholic school had some other choices for their spring break. “We could have gone to Spain, Washington D.C., El Salvador or just stayed at school and watched movies,” says Monica Bostic, a sophomore who has plans to become a social worker.

“It is great experience,” says Marquite Powell, a junior. “I have a friend from New Orleans and she told me how horrible it was.”

Chris Wilkes, a social studies teacher and coordinator of the mission trip, says he was only expecting 12 to 15 students to be interested in the trip. “Before I knew it I had 51 signed up and that whittled down to 46. They jumped at the chance.”

Wilkes says he hopes the students go back to Ohio with a deeper sense of service. “Through doing something like this they will realize they have the power to do something, the power to make an impact,” he says.

Meanwhile, in another part of town, Cassie Chastain, Kelly Habegger, Christine Reilly and Hannah Coady were taking a brief break to sit on Ruby Jones’ front porch and catch the late afternoon breeze.

They had put in a hard day’s work tearing down Sheetrock and ceilings and sweeping out wheelbarrow loads of trash.

“God calls me to do this,” says Chastain, explaining why she chose this as her spring break destination.

“Yeah, partying in Florida just won’t be this rewarding,” agrees Habegger.

The coeds were part of a team of students from United Methodist-related Reinhardt College in Waleska, Ga., spending their spring break helping residents like Jones try to pick up the pieces left of their homes after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast Aug. 29.

In the six months since the storm, Jones says this is the first time anyone has come to her aid.

“This house has been sitting here in mold for six months,” she says. “I don’t know what I would have done if they had not come. … Probably I would have stayed sitting in this mold waiting and wondering.”

Hurricane Katrina killed 238 Mississippians and 1,287 in Louisiana. The storm also left behind $75 billion of damage.

The Rev. Edward Moses, pastor of Biloxi St. Paul UMC and Mount Pleasant UMC in Gulfport, says the United Methodist teams flooding into the state are “cleansing the wounds.”

“I don’t know who it was that said Katrina means cleansing but I believe that,” he says. “We are not alone, devastation happens but this a cleansing.”

People have a chance to start over in their physical, spiritual and emotional worlds and that is a good thing, he says. “As long as our eyes are on Christ Jesus we see this as part of the grace given to us.”