SUNY Geneseo and the college/community organization Livingston CARES are preparing for work trips to Biloxi/Gulfport, Miss., and Brooklyn, N.Y., areas during this January’s winter break to continue repairing damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
It will be the organization’s 35th work trip to the Gulf Coast since Katrina ravaged that area in 2005. The president of the Harrison County (Mississippi) Board of Supervisors will be presenting a resolution of thanks to Livingston CARES representatives Monday (Jan. 11) while the work crews are in the area.
Some 971 volunteers have participated in the service trips over the years, doing such things as demolishing houses, installing plasterboard, painting and sprucing up grounds at an elementary school.
College Communications staff members Kris Dreessen and Keith Walters ‘11 are with the work crew in Biloxi, Miss., this week and will be documenting the crew’s experiences. Check back on a daily basis for updated photos, video and reports. You also can follow their progress and participate in the conversation using #GeneseoCares.
The city of Biloxi was hard hit during Hurricane Katrina. Only a few months following the 2005 storm and flooding, Livingston CARES crews were on site, tearing down rotting roofs and helping rebuild homes. Our volunteers — students, faculty, staff and Geneseo community members — have helped 70 homeowners get their lives back. They partner with nonprofit organizations to assist low-income residents, who otherwise would not be able to rebuild and stay in their homes. Many of the homes are on or on side streets of Division Street, and also in nearby Gulfport. Daisy Guyton is one of the homeowners; you will meet her and others and our volunteers this week.
View a slideshow from Kris Dreessen’s 2009 visit below:
Sunday, January 10th, 2015
THIS IS OUR CHANCE
Taylor Powers was 11 when flood waters from Hurricane Katrina rushed into Biloxi — as high as 22 feet.
Taylor has heard a lot about the trips run by Livingston CARES to help paint, hammer and help families who otherwise could not afford to rebuild. As a senior, she wanted to join the effort before she graduates from SUNY Geneseo.
“We are seniors,” she says. “This is our chance.” Taylor came with six of her friends, who all met freshmen year. “It became a group thing.”
Tonight, the Livingston CARES team checked in to the Back Bay Mission after 15 hours of travel, with an early-morning wake-up call tomorrow for breakfast, orientation and a visit to the Harrison County Board of Administrators.
Ten years ago, the county leaders accepted a pledge by Livingston CARES to assist with recovery efforts for ten years. This month marks a full decade. The board will meet at the courthouse to pass a resolution of thanks, before Taylor and volunteers head out to their work sites.
Taylor’s not sure what the week will bring, but is excited to assist families and see a deeper side of Biloxi — the sides we don’t necessarily see from the highway or public views, and to meet homeowners.
“When you’re that young you don’t really understand how the storm impacted local areas and beyond,” says Taylor. “So many years down the line, our generation can still come down and help with restoration. You actually see the people who were affected. We all come with our own preconceptions and it’s based on what we’ve seen before. I think it will definitely be eye opening … You otherwise don’t get the whole view of hardships going on behind the scenes.”
In the agonizing aftermath of Katrina, the people of Harrison County needed assistance, but lacked manpower and resources. From day one, Livingston CARES volunteers made their own way, says Connie Rocko, Harrison County district administrator.
That was 2006. This morning, the group joined the board of supervisors at the Harrison County Courthouse to be recognized for completing Livingston CARES’s 10-year commitment of service to the people of Biloxi.
Members of the local government, media and volunteers listened as Rockco, passed a resolution of thanks.
Students were asked to stand, and were met with a room of applause.
The ceremony struck an emotional chord with Tom Matthews, who has facilitated 35 trips to this area.
“Ten years ago this very week, we were in this same room when Connie Rockco was first elected president of the board of supervisors,” he said. ”We also presented that resolution from the Livingston County Board of supervisors as a promise to Biloxi at that time.”
“We’ve completed our commitment of 10 years, but our board of directors have voted to continue the relationship.”
Volunteers returned to the Back Bay Mission, where they contributed to clean-up and maintenance work needed on the grounds, and heard about work that begins tomorrow on two homes in Biloxi.
Ten years after the storm, direct rebuilding from Katrina has finished; work focuses on repairs and upgrades for elderly and lower-income residents who otherwise wouldn’t be able to maintain their homes, says Craig Steenkamp, housing development director for Back Bay Mission.
Hurricane Camille took 30 years to recover from, says Rocko. Katrina? Will be much longer. The economy, tax base, employment, tourism, skyrocketed insurance rates and other factors deeply impacted the county, she says. All work is really recovery, she says.
Students later gathered at the beach to watch the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico, before making stir-fry dinner for the group, followed by a first discussion of their reflections so far.
Tuesday started off with a culinary surprise when Dan Ward ‘87, Geneseo Foundation Board member, whipped up some eggs and sausage for the volunteers. Dan travelled from Charlotte, N.C., to be with the volunteers this week.
WE THE G: PORTRAITS AND INSIGHT FROM BILOXI
Yesterday, volunteers visited the Biloxi Visitors Center and the home of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis to learn about Mississippi culture and history.
“The woman who worked at the front desk at the Visitors Center was really friendly to me. She just wanted to talk. She was very sweet. It was a surprise, and not. It was the whole southern charm aspect. I didn’t think they would be as nice to New Yorkers is the real answer.”
What benefit do trips like these have for someone’s perspective going somewhere they have never been?
“I didn’t realize how big of a presence trips like these have. People have been really grateful and have said, ‘Without you, this town would not be like it is today.’ I didn’t know how important any people are coming on trips like these are important to Biloxi.”
-James Arcidiacono ’16
WE THE G: PORTRAITS AND INSIGHT FROM BILOXI
Mike Meyer, of Ohio, has been a volunteer construction leader with his church for the Back Bay Mission since 2001, including sleeping in a parking lot to help immediately after Katrina. He’s working with our group for the week.
“My first experience touched my heart. I cried like a baby after I got home and didn’t know why. It was because God had given me a message that this is what he wanted me to do. I’ve come here ever since.
The best part is meeting all of the varieties of folks who take a week out of their life helping somebody else. And that’s a big help to these people. It’s diverse — some old, some young, some families. Last year we had a mother and father and two children, working on the same site, learning about each other.”
OUR WORKDAY: A HOUSE CALL
Tuesday’s main task was to paint a local resident’s home, but cool morning air prevented volunteers from painting right away. While waiting for a warm-up, volunteers helped clear lots around Back Bay Mission to prevent mold damage from property buildings, and to also give the mission more space for their work trailers. Terry Tangeman, construction supervisor for Back Bay Mission, knows first-hand that the help from volunteers is crucial to the survival of Back Bay.
MEET OUR HOMEOWNER: DOLORES BARRAS
Story by Kris Dreessen
Fifty-three years. That’s how long the Virgin Mary has protected Dolores Barras, through storms and hard times and even Hurricane Katrina. Houses flooded, graves were uprooted in the memorial cemetery and caused destruction all over Biloxi.
“But Mary didn’t move,” says Dolores, a Catholic, from her front step, a few feet from where her statue stands beside orange sunflowers. “She’s never been broken or blown away. She has protected my house. I’ve always worshipped her and pray to her and she’s been there for me.”
Dolores grew up just down Division Street. Her childhood home was taken down to make way for the overpass. She and her late husband bought this home on Porter Avenue 55 years ago; fixed it up. Raised their kids.
“I’m not a person of change. I was Biloxi born and raised,” she says, “and they will bury me here.”
The Barras’ home had $500 worth of damage during Hurricane Camille. Katrina was “a bit meaner.” She was spared major flooding. Her sunken den got wet and the back bedrooms had damage. She lived in the front rooms until her god child came. Now, the Back Bay Mission is helping with repairs. Volunteers have replaced the 50-year-old aluminum siding. This week, Livingston CARES volunteers are brushing coats of paint on the house and making her shutters shine bright blue.
She couldn’t make repairs on her own on her fixed income. It just pays her bills. Nothing extravagant, she says. No casino needed.
“This. This,” she says, watching the volunteers climb up scaffolding with brushes, and laugh as they lean over the shutters in the front yard. “At my age, I’m thankful. This is my lottery. This is my jackpot, all this work. I’m very, very thankful.”
View more photos from today’s work session:
EVERYDAY RESPECT: NORMALCY AND ASSISTANCE FOR THE HOMELESS
Story by Kris Dreessen
It’s 9 a.m. and the steps to The Micah Center are full of people waiting. It’s been unusually cold here for January, and a day since anyone could get a shower.
Here, the homeless of Biloxi can get a shower, pick up toiletries and socks and other clothing staples, and sit down for a cup of coffee and some donated sweet snacks for a few hours.
This morning, 23 men and women do. Temperature dips into the thirties means Gulfport opened an emergency cold-weather shelter, says Gary, who has been homeless for seven years. The people streaming in have taken a bus to the soup kitchen for a morning meal, then walked here, or are congregating from other parts of the downtown.
Dan Martin ’16 and I are at the door to the showers, with clear directions from Ms. Ethel. We call their number in order and they get 15 minutes in a private shower with bathroom.
Or, as she says, “15 minutes of privacy.”
That sticks with me as we put on the timers above the laundry machines, always going with the mesh bags they drop off to retrieve two days later: 15 minutes of privacy.
This is the only time they probably do get privacy — to be naked, to wash, to just have time away from anyone else, and most importantly, not in public.
It is the first window into our reminders of what we take for granted having stable housing. A bed. Clothes. Deciding how long we want to shower.
When the room is full, we replace empty coffee pots with full, explain to the few new people how this whole thing works, and mostly, I stand at the door making small talk with the clients but wishing there weren’t so many — so I could go sit next to a few and just talk. Listen.
Sydney introduces himself and says thanks. He also says he understands if we don’t like to shake his hand. I’m reminded how often people dismiss homeless as non-entities, and I am sad he’s thinking of that, even in here.
Julie thanks us for being here, and Cool C wants us to know he’s a leader and doing his own thing. He’s been a little loud today and Suzanne, who is a three-month volunteer, has to remind him to keep it down.
Dan and I take laundry tickets and carefully load small piles of laundry into recycled plastic bags for clients. A few shirts. For Mason, it is a single pair of pants. I want to see Mason because I hope he has a giant backpack when he rolls in. He does not come.
We knock and politely let each person know when they have 5 minutes left in the shower, then speed clean the room — spritzes of sanitizers in the shower, wiping any hairs and flushing toilets if need be and getting it new for the next person, ASAP.
There’s a lot going on. We like it.
“It opens your eyes of what you take for granted every day, that we have laundry, food and shelter accessible,” says Dan. “You have different choices in clothing. I’m seeing the bags they have and it’s what they have in their life to use and to wear. It really opens my eyes into how they have to live and how they have to adapt to live. This place provides laundry and showers, and ability to get away from it for a morning, for a couple of mornings a week — to have a cup of coffee and talk with people.”
The Micah Center is a social outlet for homeless, says Gary, who has been homeless for seven years. For five of them, he’s camped near the Back Bay Mission and volunteers regularly at another outreach program. He also serves on several homeless-advocacy boards, lending a hand with many things with his background in business. He used to run a beauty supply company.
“I walked away from my life,” he tells me. He struggles with severe depression.
The center, he says, is indeed a social place, and offers people the handouts that are needed, like a shower and socks, as well as resume training and ways to transition out of homelessness – a tough thing to do. He wants people to know that there are “normal” people who are homeless — not all drug addicts and panhandlers people often see.
In Biloxi, Katrina, the BP oil spill and a host of other factors lend to homelessness, there are no permanent shelters. That’s what makes Micah so important; it’s a permanent assistance and safe place.
When we go, Suzanne will be here another two months. Ethel, from Biloxi, is a full-time volunteer. She comes here four days a week, for six years. She knows how valuable such help is.
“I wanted to give back because people have done a lot for me,” she says, “because I, too, was homeless after Katrina.”
A NEW SHELL
Volunteers spent their third day in Biloxi working at a new location. Their task: Remove deteriorating siding and faulty insulation so a new shell can be put on the house.
View a slideshow from today’s work site:
MEET THE PRESS
WE THE G: PORTRAITS AND INSIGHT FROM BILOXI
Throughout the week, students have had the opportunity to volunteer with Back Bay’s various social service programs at the Biloxi campus. During this time, volunteers have helped provide laundry, access to showers, food, and most importantly, someone who is willing to listen.
“This is my second trip here. When I returned from my first trip my friends asked me how it was. I just said, ‘I needed that.’ I left feeling enlightened and I’m so glad I get to experience this.”
“The way people perceive the homeless is something that changed me and how I view the world. You don’t know how the person got there. You might know their current situation, but you don’t know their story twenty years back, or what their family is like, if they even have any. Hearing the stories was most surprising to me.”
- Becky Caracciolo ‘16
GLADYS DANIELS: ‘YOU’VE GOT TO HELP ONE ANOTHER’
Story by Kris Dreessen
It’s been eight years since Gladys Daniels, 83, opened her front door to her home for the first time, again.
Plumbers, electricians, college students and a lot of crews from different states ripped up, hammered, painted and got her in her Bowen Street house again after Hurricane Katrina.
Without them, “this” would not have happened: a tidy one-story home with a wheelchair ramp entrance, sturdy windows and all on her same property she and her late husband bought to raise a family decades ago.
“The storm was horrible. Oh Lord, I hope I never have to go through one again,” Gladys says, looking out into her family room and dining room table. “But people help you. It’s remarkable. People you’ve never seen before. It was just so good and kind. You don’t even know them.
A few feet away is where her last dining room table sat, and where she and her son, Ben, and her now deceased mother survived the storm. Katrina floodwaters rushed in during daytime, thank the Lord, she says, or more of her friends would have died.
“We had storms but we never got water like that,” she says of why many didn’t evacuate. “It was too late for us to go.”
Her mom ran over from across the street. By then, it was too late to do anything but get on the dining room table — and hope and fear.
“There was water up to here,” says Gladys, her finger resting on the painting at eye level.
At first, Gladys waded in the water, catching shoes that floated out of closets and putting them on the couch. When the refrigerator tipped, she knew it was disaster. She and Ben put a chair on the dining room table for her mom; it was a struggle, but they all got up. If Ben wasn’t there? They’d be dead.
Hours and night passed, the water waist level past the table: “We were praying and everything else and calling to Jesus. Ain’t nothing else to do. ‘Jesus, don’t leave us now.’”
“Many of our friends drowned.”
When the water receded, the family waded in the muck. Only a few blankets kept in an upper space could be kept. They lost everything. Looking back, everything was a big loss: “What you have, you wanted,” she says.
People in the food and water trucks that called out assistance after were the first people who lent a hand, and have stuck with her.
Those volunteers from many states rebuilt her home — gutted to homey once again.
She carries that with her.
“I think of the scripture. ‘It is blessed to give than to receive.’ I often think of that and if someone comes around for help for something, I give. And if I don’t have it to give, I try to get it. You’ve got to help one another, and get along with one another. What if the people didn’t help me? Where would I be today?”
WHAT’S IN A HOME?
A house is more than a structure. For Biloxi homeowner Karen Dronet, her home has provided shelter, family and memories for more than twenty years; and that is why she intends on staying. Learn more in the video below:
VIEW A SLIDESHOW OF TODAY’S PHOTOS
WE THE G: PORTRAITS AND INSIGHT FROM BILOXI
Tom Matthews and Livingston CARES might as well be one and the same. Over the last 10 years, Tom has spearheaded many service and leadership initiatives through Livingston CARES.
“When we started out, we were all watching he horrific destruction of the Gulf Coast and we were noticing that Mississippi wasn’t getting much attention. We thought, ‘Where could we go where we could develop relationship and meet new people?’”
“New Orleans was just too big, but Biloxi seemed like a place where we could actually get to know people. We really wanted to have a relationship, not just a few trips. It makes all the difference in the world because when we come down here, it feels like we have a place.”
“As an institution, we seized the moment. We decided to make a commitment and support it.”
Ten years later, our commitment is still strong.
HOMEOWNER PROFILE: DAISY GUYTON
You never forget what people do for you. It changes you.
Story by Kris Dreessen
Daisy steps out, Duke darting out with a bark to see who’s coming. On the front door is a black wreathe carefully wrapped in gold ribbon, opening to a living room in black and reds.
It’s the same frame, but on the inside? Her home is all new. Katrina flooding rose seven feet, wiping away more than 47 years of her family’s life.
“We had to start from scratch. I was 73. Can you imagine that?” says Daisy. “Everything you had accumulated. In a matter of hours — you don’t have anything but what you have on.”
Before the storm, Daisy and her son, Thomas, had evacuated to Hattiesburg. Her son-in-law had a heck of a time driving her back to her Fayard Street home. Her daughter found her in the driveway before she tried to go inside.
“She said, ‘Mama, you ain’t gonna like what you see.,’ says Daisy. “ I peeked in the window and I just started crying.”
The fridge was clear to the other side of the room. The chandelier had fallen to the floor, covered in ankle-deep mud. Everything was upside down. Her son-in-law looked at her and told her, as long as they had a home? She has one too.
It was the beginning of many times — and years — people showed compassion and care. Often times, they were strangers.
Daisy is one of 70 homeowners for whom the volunteer crews from Livingston CARES helped with rebuilding. Hers was one of the first they worked on, in January 2006, months after the storm.
Tom Matthews, Livingston CARES board member, hauled a tub inside for Daisy’s bathroom on that trip.
“When we originally created Livingston CARES, we wanted to find a place where we could develop relationships and get to know people,” he says. “I’ve come back to visit her almost every year we’ve been here, over 10 years. We are connected to this place, this home and this person. “
Volunteers from many organizations, ripped everything up then rebuilt, with some surprises, like the wooden kitchen island.
“Oh, I was so happy,” Daisy says, remembering how the guys who installed it kept it a secret until they unveiled it for her. “They were so nice.”
When it was finally time to move in, Daisy and her daughter slept there before there was anything.
“There were no sheets, no nothing. But we had a bed,” she laughs. “I didn’t care. We were overjoyed.”
Where would she be without the volunteers? Not here. Not at her house, where she had made a home; where her memories are.
Daisy’s husband, a chef, died a long time ago. With her fixed income, she wouldn’t be able to rebuild. She imagines life in a senior apartment in Biloxi. Maybe Thomas could stay with her, now that he has had his leg amputated and has had a stroke. Here she can surely care for him. Soon, she needs to make his lunch. Her daughter Shaunda stays here, too. That would be impossible in senior housing, too.
“I’m just so thankful,” she says. “This has changed me, a lot.”
In such devastation, you are forced to see things differently, she says, when life is completely altered. Gone. Before the storm, Daisy says, she didn’t think much about the folks on food stamps, or those who were down and out. Not in the same way.
“You don’t think much because really, you’re living the good life. Then I found myself in the same line, to get whatever I could to survive,” she says. “I have six coats out in the back shed that I bought for children when I know someone needs them. It really changed me as a person.”
Often she looks around her house, and remembers. She tries not to think about the pain of the storm, but of the care so many showed her, and others.
Then there’s the fridge.
A volunteer told Daisy a member of her congregation heard about her and wanted to buy her a new one. The volunteer took her to a store, and invited her to choose one. They picked it out together — whatever she wanted, and put it on the gentleman’s credit card. He was never in Biloxi, or the state.
“To this day, if he walked in, I wouldn’t know who he was because he had never even been here,” she says, looking off. “This is why I appreciate the volunteers. They do things and they don’t even know you. They did so much for us. So much. It was terrible, this storm, but when things like this happen, it also shows us the best in people.”
WE THE G: PORTRAITS AND INSIGHT FROM BILOXI
Many volunteers in Biloxi come to realize that these types of experiences encompass far more than just providing community service for those in need. This is an opportunity to see life “from the other side of the tracks.” Mitch Billard ‘16 is one of those volunteers.
“This is my third trip down here. This isn’t just a community service trip to help people who are less fortunate than us; we are also immersing ourselves in an entirely different culture that we don’t get to experience in Upstate New York. This is a trip that combines both aspects of being able to help people, while also learning about their life stories and life histories which is just as valuable.”
“It’s eye-opening. You come down here with these pre-conceived notions about what poverty is, what homelessness is, about what being in need is. Maybe you come down and think it’s their fault that they’re in that situation. Those are things that within just a few days of being here, you quickly realize that what you originally though is just not true. It opens up your mind as to what it really mean to live like this — on the other side of the tracks.”
THE LEADERS OF BILOXI: THERE FROM THE BEGINNING.
Story by Kris Dreessen
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Connie Rocko and other Harrison County leaders, workers and emergency personnel pulled 20-hour days. They lived in the courthouse, trying to help even as some of their own homes were devastated.
When relief started coming in, it was not easy to accept. They didn’t have the resources or emotional manpower to coordinate, says Connie Rocko, District 5 supervisor for Harrison County.
“That’s what was so great about the Livingston CARES and the Geneseo group,” Rocko says. “They made their own way. I told them, ‘I don’t know where you’re going to stay, I don’t know what you’re going to eat.’ They did it themselves.”
The first Livingston CARES trip was January 2006. Ten years later, three groups of about 20 students, faculty and staff members from the college and community members have volunteered every year. Nearly 900 people have come, providing construction assistance through various organizations and staying in everything from locker rooms in the old stadium to converted railroad cars and dorms in former sewing factories and now the Back Bay Mission.
Rocko has been a steadfast friend and supporter for the decade-long commitment, which Livingston CARES officially extended this week.
Direct Katrina relief is finished, says Rocko, but the storm affected many things. High insurance, unemployment, the tax base and taxes affect the struggling economy. Biloxi is usually the last to enter a recession in Mississippi, and the last to get out.
Thursday evening Rocko hosted volunteers to a thank-you dinner of traditional southern fried fish and shrimp.
“Anything the volunteers can assist with, even though it may not be Katrina damage, helps the community,” says Rocko, who gave the group a resolution of thanks from the Harrison County Board of Supervisors on Monday. “It helps our spirits too.”
Volunteers capped off the week with a bonfire, s’mores and a group reflection at a beach not far from Back Bay. Ten years ago this beach was unrecognizable — Katrina had washed away the sand and replaced it with a mess of debris that took two years to fully mend.