Biloxi service trip gives students opportunity to help Katrina-damaged community

Geneseo students had an opportunity to spend their time off working with other volunteers in Biloxi, Mississippi to rebuild homes and to help those still affected by Hurricane Katrina during spring break.

Chemistry major senior Alexandra Nealis attended this trip after being recommended by her rugby teammates during her freshman year. 

“I chose to go on this one because I had previously heard of it, and I had never really been to the south before,” Nealis said. “I thought it was interesting because 12 years after Hurricane Katrina, there’s still damage there.”

Nealis balances most of her time between her sorority, Delta Phi Epsilon, and the women’s rugby team. In addition to her involvement with both organizations, she wanted to give back during her last semester here at Geneseo.

She departed on March 11 with 14 other women. Upon arriving in Mississippi, Nealis and her peers explored the area a bit.

“We walked around and a bunch of us went to the French market, saw the different culture,” Nealis said. 

Once returning to the Backbay mission, the group had a meeting with the project coordinator, where they met their group and saw what project they would be working on. The group started the next day, along with a church group from Wisconsin who also stayed at the mission. 

“We were painting, putting primer on and hanging baffles on the ceiling,” Nealis said. “In the south, houses are built a little differently because they don’t have to accommodate for the snow. It’s like Styrofoam venting to make sure the air gets through.” 

The skills Nealis and her group learned from the construction site manager were quite different from the skills typically learned while at Geneseo.

“They had a construction site manager who taught us how to do everything, and always made sure we were comfortable doing everything,” Nealis said. 

Once they finished working on the initial home for three days, they began to help move a family into another home because of the weather. Nealis and her group began working on another home around the corner and in the final stages of construction. 

“They were a family that was out of a house for four years. They lost the house during Katrina,” Nealis said. “They started to rebuild, but both of the parents got laid off so they couldn’t afford to build anymore.”

They helped put together furniture and move the family in when they finally finished their home.

 “We got to move the family in; it was parents and their five kids. They were so excited to finally have a home after leaping from house to house for four years,” Nealis said. “It gave more meaning to the project.”

While most of the trip was hard work and helping others, the group also traveled to see the memorials of Hurricane Katrina.    

“You could see the old paths to the houses, but there’s nothing there, just slate … there’s still just paths there 12 years later because either the homeowners couldn’t afford to build the house or they just gave up on the land,” Nealis said.

Throughout the trip, the group was able to learn about each other and bonded through their mutual hard work.

For people looking to volunteer and help the impoverished, there are plenty of local opportunities.

“You don’t have to go to Mississippi to make a difference,” Nealis said. “There’s a food pantry in Geneseo you can help out at. There is poverty everywhere.”