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Archive for March, 2008

On Friday morning (our last work day) I dropped three of our Luther
guys: Sam Eaton, Matt Drees, and Nate Gendren, off at the local car wash
with all the dirty and mildew-covered plastic latticework an earlier
Luther work crew had removed from the base of one of the houses we were
painting in Ocean Springs. We pulled into a car wash bay a mile or two
up the road and started unloading the lattice onto the floor to power
wash it. It nearly filled the wash bay. I handed the guys thirty bucks
from my own cash, and told them to go get the necessary tokens hoping
that it would be enough to wash all that lattice. (It would not have
come close to being enough money!) Then I was going to leave them there
and take some time to fill up the rental van with fuel and then return
to pick them up after the washing was done.

Before I could leave, the car wash attendant approached us in the wash
bay and asked if we were relief volunteers, the guys answered, “Yes, we
are from Camp Victor,” and without further question or delay the
attendant immediately turned and stuck his pass key into our wash
control unit and said something like, “This one is on the house! Thank
you all for coming down here to help us. This is the least we can do.”
Our eyes lit up and we thanked the man for his generosity. The guys took
off their shoes and socks and power-washed the blackened latticework
for free for nearly an hour… and the cleaned and washed lattice on the
freshly-painted house really made a huge difference in the curb appeal
of the house. It was worth the time and effort to do the job right.

What impressed me the most about this was that the man at the car wash
made that decision to give us a freebie, knowing we had the cash…. and
this is two and half years after Katrina. It made it pretty obvious
that the area people are still in need of assistance and that they are
still helping each other and the volunteers who come down here in any
way they can. Cool stuff.

On Wednesday we were putting the finishing touches on the Lilly Wilson
home in Gautier, Miss., a few miles east of Ocean Springs. The paint
crew of Nina Davis, Marsha (Key) Berg, and Students Amanda Markowski,
Emily Sharp and Caroline Rosen were finishing up the painting in the
bathroom. Carpenters Eric Krueger, Eric “Balto” Johnson, and Hawkeye
Stages driver Bill Wagner were finishing up the exterior siding and the
interior woodwork.

I pulled the Luther women off the paint work and asked them to help hang
the shelving units in Lilly’s walk-in laundry closet just off the back
bedroom. We had the usual adjustable track shelving we had purchased
with Lutheran Disaster Relief funds at Lowe’s… four tracks for two
sets of shelves on two of the three closet walls. I explained briefly
to Amanda, Emily and Caroline how to use the magnetic stud finder to
locate the wall studs by finding the hidden screw heads under the
drywall, then showed them how to use my four-foot level to make their
center lines and make sure everything was level and plumb, and how to
use a heavy duty variable speed Milwaukee drill to drive the three-inch
drywall screws to attach the shelving tracks. For demonstration I
attached the first of the four tracks with them watching me… then I
simply told them to, “have at it!” and left them. A short while later
they had completed the task perfectly, with few questions and no errors.

None of the Luther women had probably used any of the tools I gave them
to use to do this job. As a team of three, they picked up on it
immediately, showed eagerness rather than skittishness, and went after
the task with little reservation. Most importantly, they worked well
together and took turns and shared the tasks so that all of them would
learn how to use the tools given to them. I was so impressed with all
the students and their willingness to step up and do the things that
needed to be done regardless of how much or how little training they
had. The two Erics and Bill took over the carpentry jobs like pros and
did an excellent job piecing together the living room wall using all the
skill and care one would expect from professional builders. It was awesome.

Finally, I would take any and all of these Luther students ANYWHERE.
They are conscientious, thoughtful, caring, hard-working and just plain
fun to be around. It is a pleasure to be associated with them. They
are fantastic people.

– Kirk Johnson

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Gators

The other day my crew was working at a park in Ocean Springs and he asked us if we’d seen the alligator. I’m very happy to report that there were no gators in sight, although I did have a brush with a pile of fire ants that wasn’t the MOST pleasant.

Today we’re working on two houses just about a block from Camp Victor. It’s been a great day with the music going, the sun shining and the whole crew keeping busy with painting and some minor repair on the exterior of the houses.

Across the street is another house we were going to start working on. From the front it looks quite nice. It’s got aluminum siding and while the fascia looks like it could use a coat of paint, the door is in good repair, the yard is neat and the owner is so hospitable, complimenting us regularly on the work we’re doing on the houses across the street.

We took a walk around her house yesterday to see what all needed to be done. And in fact, looks were deceiving. As I said, from the front things look pretty good, but when we got around the back her roof was badly damaged and it had been leaking into the house. The water had damaged the structure on the backside and there was untold damage inside the house.

On a closer look, you could see that it wasn’t just that the trim needed a coat of paint, but that most of the windows were rotten. The house needed major help.

Money is getting tight down here for project like this and you might look and say that those windows were rotten before, but I’m betting the roof damage is from the storm and all the other damage in the back has come from that.

I think there are lots of things and lots of people who have the same issue here. Things are looking pretty good in front, but when we really look at the whole picture there’s a lot more damage. I see a lot more stress in people this year and almost a sense of resignation. If it’s shocking for us to come down here and realize not much is better in a year how incremental must it feel to all of them?

But today we’re painting two houses and making them better than they were before we started. We’re sharing gatorade and a special Mississippi treat–Gator Tator chips. That’s just the kind of gator I want to find!

– Rachel

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Grateful

The thing I’ve been most impressed with about coming to Mississippi is how grateful everyone is. I expected people to be nice, but it’s like we are local celebrities. Everywhere we go, be it the beach, church or even just Taco Bell, someone stops us and thanks us for our hard work and contribution to their community.

Our group has been working this week at Shepard State Park in Gautier, MS. Originally our group was a little disappointed because we anticipated that we would be building houses, but those feelings were immediately washed away the second we set foot on the park grounds and met our coordinator.

We found out that the state government has pulled all the funding from the
park system so there is absolutely no staff to maintain the park. The park
is run by two volunteers who live at the park and collect camping fees,
but don’t have the means or money for upkeep.

The park is an extremely peaceful and beautiful place to be, but without any help, the volunteers can only keep about half of the park in operating condition. So far this week we have painted the bathrooms (no small task), organized a large garage and cleaned its grounds, filled pot holes, painted a frisbee golf course, painted the fire hydrants, built a fence and picked up endless amounts of debris still left from the hurricaine over two and a half years ago!

This morning we pulled out almost the entire remains of a garage from a swamp. Our cordinator has also told us a lot about the clean up after the storm. She said they cut a picnic table out of a tree that was 25 feet off the ground! Our cordinator has been so generous and so grateful for all the work we have done, and the week is barely half over. And we’ve all certainly enjoyed the sunny weather!

– Sam E.

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Women Working

Yesterday my crew was working with the city’s public works department. They set us up with reflective vests, a set of cones and the task of repainting the sea wall.

It was a hard detail, I have to tell you. Although it was a little cool at first, pretty soon it was a sunny day with a light wind coming off the bay. Just to our left was the new bridge arching up over the Biloxi Bay toward that city. Only one lane is open going each way for about another month, but everyone who I ask about it is quick to tell me to come down at night–it has lights both on the bridge and reflecting down at the water and they tell me it’s lovely.

It’s also a very visible sign of recovery in a place where other things are more incremental.

As we worked yesterday, people would slow down as they eased by our painting crew. Some would roll down their window and ask where we were from. A number of them thanked us. We got a few “God Bless Yous” as well. And then one man stopped next to me and said “where are the men?” in reference to our Men Working sign and my efficient crew of 8 young women.

I have been leading Habitat for Humanity trips for about eight years now and with 15 male students in this group of 47 we are at an all-time high for male student participation. And that’s great, but it is also having an interesting effect on our group. I am finding that we are all following pretty traditional gender roles, whether it’s intentional or not.

Typically, our group might have one or two male students and so the female students jump in and do any number of the jobs on the construction site. I think it sometimes surprises both the supervisor and the student because in a construction setting more times than not we will turn to the male rather than the female no matter who has more skills. Because of our more balanced group this year we’ve been more intentional about making sure that we keep challenging the gender roles and changing society’s (and our own) expectations about who is good at what.

And as for my Women Only crew…when we got back from our lunch break today a Public Works truck pulled up and out hopped two guys with our new safety sign.

women working

– Rachel

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Defenseless Prey

On Saturday night there was no dinner at Camp Victor, so Claire and I ate
at a small seafood place that she had tried and liked last year. I believe
it was called Tarantinos or something like that.

We split a crab platter and two pounds of crawfish, and as soon as we
received our food, we set to work destroying the shells of our defenseless
prey. Muahahaha…

The restaurant was small and simply decorated with a few signs and
posters. There wasn’t even a sign out front, so we had some trouble
finding it. It was definitely intended to be a place for locals to come,
eat good food, and have a good time instead of a fancy overpriced place
meant to impress tourists. I think it fit the lack of etiquette required
to crunch and rip apart the exoskeletons of our tastey crustacean cuisine
to get at the delectable flesh inside. (Sorry, my English major is
showing.)

It’s not that this was a bad thing. It was nice to be in an atmosphere
that wasn’t a put on to impress customers, even though I didn’t think
about it at the time. Surrounded by the laughter of Ocean Springs
residents and struggling to get the meat out of crab legs, I had a great
time.

I guess I’ll conclude this little post by saying, however cheesy it may
be, that it is the little things that make an experience great, like
friendly smiles at an un-presumptuous restaurant.

-Mike (zombielincoln10)

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Alleluia

This morning we worshipped at Christus Victor, the Lutheran congregation that was instrumental in getting Camp Victor started. I’ve spent a lot of Easters away from the church I belong to and some of those years have been better experiences than others, but this one will stick in my memory for a long time.

Growing up, my favorite thing about church on Easter was “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” with trumpets in the choir loft. Sometimes I’ve found that in the church I’m visiting, but many times its been something else. And that hasn’t always been a good thing.

I think I now have a new favorite. The service today began with the Sunday School kids singing an enthusiastic version of “Allelu”.

Allelu. Allelu. Everyone sing Allelu. The Lord is risen, it is true…Alleluia!

The children’s sermon involved giving each of the kids a letter in Alleluia. Once they had the Alleluia for the congregation to see, Pastor Terri told us that the Alleluia is in all of our hands. She said that the way that we live needs to praise God every day in all that we do.

As we had our orientation tonight we got an update on the Gulf Coast one year later–31 months after the storm. There are still over 10,000 families living in FEMA trailers in Mississippi alone. Only about 20% of the work is done from the storm damage, but after two and a half years the money is drying up.

We’re here for a week. We’ll do what we’re able, but more than what we can do here with our 57 sets of hands is what we can do when we get home. We need to tell the story of the people down here–how resilient they are, how hard they are working and what they face. It’s daunting and almost seems more than we can ever try to fix.

One of the staff at the camp repeated a story we heard during our orientation last year. It’s the story of a boy who was walking along the beach throwing back star fish. When the man with him pointed out that he wouldn’t be able to save all the star fish the boy threw back another one and as it hit the water he said “well, it mattered to that one”.

Tomorrow we go and find our star fish.

Alleluia.

– Rachel

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It’s our first morning in Ocean Springs. Though it was a little colder than I expected, I went for a jog down along the beach–a morning ritual a few girlfriends and I started while on the trip last year.
 
Today is Easter, and in the spirit of rebirth I decided to visit a site I worked on on last year’s trip.
 
Just a block off the beach, the house stood no chance against the winds and floodwaters Katrina brought in. It was completely destroyed. When we were assigned to clear the lot last year, we arrived to find a twisted mess of brush, bricks, and scattered household decor: mere indications that a home once existed where we stood. 
 
In just a day and a half, we cleared the lot and sorted the trash and brush into piles for pickup. It was so rewarding to leave the site knowing we made a difference. The lot was clear, ready and waiting for a home to occupy it once again.
 
I don’t know much about the process of building a home, and I’m especially not aware of the laws and regulations in Mississippi. In my mind, however, I imagined that the year would bring progress. I saw a brand new house on the lot, with a freshly landscaped yard, maybe with cars in the driveway and toys out back… when I rounded the corner and jogged to a stop at the site this morning, though, I saw the exact opposite.
 
The lot grew over. The brush and brambles are back. The entire plot is a jumbled mess. There is no house, no yard, and no car.
 
Where is the rebirth? Do our efforts down here even matter? How could such hard work go to waste?
 
Disheartened, I finished my jog back to camp. As I walked the hallway to my dorm room, I spotted the mural our group left on the wall last year. Next to my name, I’d written the most important message I took away from my work last year: “Work big picture: ALWAYS.” Seeing those words again, I regained my hope. I’d forgotten what I learned from last year’s mission, that though your work may seem small and meaningless, it does make a difference. Every bit of effort down here helps, though we may not understand it or see the results immediately. We have to work for the big picture, the long-term growth and rebuilding, and it has to happen one small piece at a time.

 – Melanie

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