ISU students help Gulf Coast rebuild over spring break

April 3 2006


Many students say they want to go back

Caitlin Brewster had never roofed or gutted a house, skills she said she would ordinarily never have learned, and certainly not while on spring break from Indiana State University.

But the 19-year-old freshman was among 35 Indiana State students who took part in Alternative Spring Break, a program that encourages college students to volunteer their spring break to serve others.

This year's focus was helping victims of Hurricane Katrina in and around Biloxi, Miss., and St. Bernard's Parish, La.

Like most Americans six months ago, Brewster sat stunned as she watched images of Katrina and its devastation flash across her television; but instead of just watching, she wanted to do something. When she found out about Alternative Spring Break, she jumped at the chance.

"It was a great opportunity and I really wanted to go and help people, even though my friends didn't really get it, and I didn't know what to expect," said Brewster, a freshman criminology major from Terre Haute.

What Brewster found along the Mississippi Gulf Coast exceeded what expectations she did have.

"TV doesn't give the damage justice," she said. "It gave me an eerie feeling because no one was living there, and all I could keeping thinking was that someone's life was completely ruined," Brewster said.

The students slept on the floor of an old church, and shared five showers among 100 volunteers.

Jessica Bush, a master's student in the human resources development program, and co-organizer of the trip, said students had to take G.I showers - rinse off, lather up, rinse off and get out.

Brewster said on more than one occasion, they broke the water pump because so many people were trying to shower. During those times, she had to brush her teeth outside with a bottle of water.

Despite their living conditions, both students were adamant the trip wasn't about them, but about the people they were there to help.

"The improvements we made while we were there were just a drop in the bucket of what still needs to be done," Bush said. "I feel like I should still be down there."

Students divided into groups and worked on four different sites - an alcohol rehabilitation center; two houses that needed roofing work; and a house that needed to be gutted in St. Bernard's Parish in suburban New Orleans, an area that suffered the most damage when a levee broke, leaving houses and businesses under water.

In St. Bernard's Parish, the volunteers didn't see a single business in operation, and only two gas stations in the entire area were open, said Al Perone, director of student activities and organizations at ISU.

He recalled seeing houses with furniture sticking out of windows. The entire area smelled of mildew, and much of the water was contaminated with oil, he said.

"I was told that only about 10 percent of the people who lived in St. Bernard's Parish before the hurricane will return; and the people that still live there don't have homes," Perone said.

The students said they worked long, exhausting days, waking at 6 a.m. and returning for dinner at 7 p.m. Despite the exhausting routine, Andrew Willman, 19, of Hartford City, still didn't want to go home at the end of the week.

"I didn't feel right being back on campus and doing my usual routine," said Willman, a freshman criminology major. "I know a lot of other students who feel the same way. I want to go back."

Willman said that the main thing that touched him was the people.

"There was one lady, we roofed her house. She had been through so much, but she always stayed positive and that really touched me," he said.

Willman wasn't the only student touched by the attitude of the victims.

"Every second of my break was amazing," Brewster said. "I have never had so many people thank me. They just kept coming up to me and thanking me for being there. It's so rewarding because they are so positive and to them, they are lucky because they haven't lost their lives and they haven't lost their hope."

Although, Brewster says, the people haven't lost hope in the volunteers, some Gulf Coast residents do fear that some Americans have forgotten about them. While taking a walk, Brewster met a woman and her granddaughter standing outside their FEMA trailer. She said the woman told her what it was like after the hurricane.

"The woman said she had tried to evacuate, but a lot of people were still trapped, and that a few days after the storm everyone was sick, and a lot of people had died and their bodies were scattered everywhere," Brewster said.

The woman told her things have come a long way in the past six months, but because the media coverage has slowed down, a lot of people have moved on with their everyday lives.

Brewster also said she saw people still living in tents six months after Katrina destroyed their homes.

"It's so sad," Brewster said. "A lot of these people don't have flood insurance to pay for rebuilding their homes, so they have to count on volunteers."

Perone said he was told that cities hit by the storm are not expected to be back to normal for 10 years.

ISU plans to organize another trip for the week after finals in May and the first week of January 2007.

Brewster, Bush and Willman said they will be there.

"We have even talked about car-pooling and taking our own cars," Bush said. "I'd like to see even more Indiana State students on the next trip in May."

Students can help with the Katrina efforts no matter their abilities, Brewster said.

"I didn't know how to shingle a house, but I caught on quickly, and people showed us how to do it," she said. "I never thought I would know how to shingle a house, but now I can say I can."

The primary home that Brewster worked on was the home of Katrina victim John Holder of Pascagoula, Miss.

Holder said he waited out the storm with his wife and mother-in-law in his home because his mother-in-law's health didn't permit her to travel.

Holder recalled memories of the storm. He said the winds produced such an indescribable roar, and although he had toughed out hurricanes before, he had never experienced anything like Katrina. Holder believes he is lucky because his home only received damage from the wind and hail.

The Indiana State students who gave up their spring break to help him and his neighbors were a blessing from God, he said.

"My wife and I appreciate what the Lord has done," Holder said. "He sent them to us. We tried to return the favor, but it was a blessing that the Lord sent a group like this to us. They never complained, and they didn't come down here to take advantage of us. They came down here to be a part, and I appreciate and love them to death."


PHOTOS: Publication-quality photos are available at:

1. Crystal Thomas, ISU student, repairs a roof during the spring break service trip.
2. About 35 ISU students took part in Alternative Spring Break, helping those affected by Hurricane Katrina.

CONTACT: Al Perone, director, student activities and organizations, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3822 or

WRITER: Rachel Wyly, ISU Communications & Marketing student intern, Indiana State University

Media Relations Contact: Katie Spanuello, media relations assistant director, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3790 or

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Story Highlights

About 35 ISU students took part in Alternative Spring Break this March, helping those affected by Hurricane Katrina.

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