Williston helps rebuild Mississippi

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

The insulation was moldy, the floor joists and sheetrock rotted. The walls were starting to buckle.

Nearly 21 months after Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast, a Moss Point. Miss., home belonging to one woman still stood in desperate need of repair and reconstruction.

Residents from Williston, as part of a trip organized by the Williston Federated Church, spent a week reconstructing, painting and cleaning up at that house and three others in Moss Point and Pascagoula, Miss.

“All we see from our end is we’re making dents,” said long-time Williston resident Paul Bouchard. “But we’re making a dent to one person or one family, and that’s huge.”

The trip was the second organized by the Williston Federated Church to volunteer through the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission. The first group went in November. This month 17 people traveled to southeastern Mississippi’s Camp Hope, one of 30 United Methodist base camps in the Gulf Coast. Williston trip participants included Paul and Carol Bouchard, Alex Alexander, Carol Burbank, Tony and Susan Lamb, Ruth Magill, Sally and Will Metro, and Ken and Nancy Stone. Others were friends or family members and Williston postal deliverywoman Jean Wright, a Burlington resident who saw the call for participants in the Observer.

The Williston group is a tiny fraction of those who’ve come before them; site facilitator Curt Brown said there have been more than 5,000 volunteers through United Methodist camps just since Jan. 1, 2007. Camp Hope volunteers alone have assisted in the reconstruction of more than 600 homes.

“A lot of people think the coast is cleaned up and done … and it’s not,” Brown said by phone this week. “We have a lot of work to do.”

United Methodist Volunteers in Mission officials assume between five and seven years of reconstruction projects lay ahead. Brown’s organization tends to assist first people who are most impoverished, elderly, and who have disabilities, Brown said.

“You drive around and you realize we’ve touched 5 percent of homes that need to be fixed down here,” Brown said, referring to all volunteer organizations. “Many of these homes will be in bad shape for a long time.”

Burbank, who had never completed a trip to do relief work prior to Mississippi, said she was overwhelmed by the devastation, in spite of having seen pictures on television.

“To actually be there in person … it really touched your soul,” she said. “It made it very real.”

She experienced deep sadness over people’s losses, she said, and yet she found hope, too.

“I was very moved by this unshakable spirit these people had, and also the dedication of the volunteers down there, the church people,” Burbank said. “We think we volunteer up here. These people are day in and day out.”

One volunteer, for example, has been serving breakfast to volunteers five to six days a week for the last 21 months, Paul and Carol Bouchard said.

Trip participants – whose ages ranged roughly from fifties to seventies – needed no special skills, the Bouchards said. Some had plumbing and electrical skills; some did yard clean up and painting; errands needed to be run, too. Carol Bouchard did not know how to lay laminate flooring when she left Vermont for Mississippi; by the end of her week there, she was teaching others how to do it, her husband said.

Both Brown and Burbank spoke of an equally important piece of the volunteers’ work.

“Even if you were a listener to the people so they could tell their story, that was one of the greatest gifts you could give,” Burbank said.

The Bouchards said the trip and the projects were well-organized. The cost of the trip included plane tickets and $100 per person for food and dormitory lodging.

“If anybody has any inkling at all, they should do it,” Carol Bouc