The first thing Samantha Stiles noticed when she drove up to the Biloxi, Miss., house was the bathtub in the front yard. Next, she saw a boat leaning on the side of the house, and workers on the roof. But when she entered the house, there was nothing besides its wooden frame, a washing machine and piles of debris.
"It was in squalid condition. The house was probably beautiful at one point, but nothing was there. It was really shocking," said Stiles, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
But thanks to the work that Stiles and 135 other Jewish students are doing on the Gulf Coast during the first two weeks of January, the homes are slowly being restored to their pre-Hurricane Katrina conditions. Sixteen campus Hillels are sending students to participate in the alternative-break program, organized by Weinberg Tzedek Hillel, an international public-service and social-justice initiative, in partnership with the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Gulfport, Miss. United Jewish Communities has provided financial support.
The students spend long days fixing homes, while at night they participate in reflective activities, such as lectures from local community leaders, text study or discussions. They are preparing their meals and sleeping in the church building.
Westminster Presbyterian Church has been coordinating relief projects since the tragedy first struck and provided the volunteers with the equipment and materials to replace damaged and missing shingles. Though most were novices with construction projects, the students quickly adjusted to long hours on the rooftops of Biloxi.
"I've never built anything in my life. I'm amazed that I can use a hammer," said Jordy Gold, who is part of the Hillel of Greater Toronto delegation. "But it really didn't take a long time to adjust and figure out what we're doing."
Lack of experience didn't deter any of the students from joining the mission. For some like UCLA sophomore Jacob Leven, who studies engineering, it was a greater incentive to participate. But for most, it was the desire to help with their hands, rather than, or in addition to, their wallets, that inspired them to make the trip.
"We all hear about this and we feel sorry for the victims and send money, but so few people actually get up and do something about it," Leven said.
"I had a general exasperation with the way this disaster was handled. These people weren't treated right," UNC senior Erin Strauss said. "But when I see the faces of the people whose house I'm fixing, I feel like I'm making a difference."
Meeting the local residents has been a highlight for many of the participants, who say they are blown away by the stories of survival. University of Georgia junior Amy Price recalled hearing about a local man who stayed afloat on a raft for seven hours before being rescued, and seeing a house with a large hole in the roof where the family had hammered themselves out to escape the rising water. She plans on passing these stories, as well as a report on current conditions, along to her friends after returning to campus.
"I'll definitely go back and tell people what's left here – the FEMA trailers and tents where people are sleeping now," she said.
"But it's very difficult to get people to really understand something like this. You really don't get it until you're here and meet the people and walk down the streets," Gold said.
Another 300 students will get that opportunity when they join the alternative breaks that Hillel is planning for March and April.
Read more about Hillel's alternative breaks :
The Jewish Week (N.Y.)
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
Jewish Exponent (Philadelphia)
Canadian Jewish News
Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin
NewsChannel 34 (Binghamton, N.Y.)
WLOX (Biloxi, Miss.)
WENY (Elmira, N.Y.)