November 26, 2005
Students spend their break helping others
Groups from Tech and Radford aid Gulf Coast residents who were affected by Katrina
by Kevin Miller
New River Valley Current
A part of Kate Kulbok was disappointed she missed the time off with family, the turkey and fixings, plus everything else that comes with a typical Thanksgiving.
But the disappointment didn't last long.
All the Virginia Tech sophomore had to do was look at the situation of the people she and 50 other Tech students were in Louisiana assisting. Nearly three months after Hurricane Katrina hit, these homeowners had barely begun to dig out.
"It really makes me thankful for what I have," Kulbok said during a phone interview from New Orleans, where she was helping clean out a muck-filled duplex. "It's really pertinent that we went over Thanksgiving break because these people have lost everything."
Dozens of students from Tech and Radford University spent their weeklong Thanksgiving break in Gulf Coast communities doing everything from debris cleanup to insulation installation.
All are volunteers. Most had never done any disaster relief work before. And several said they were so moved by the scale of the devastation they witnessed that they plan to return.
"Amazing things are happening down there," said Brie Malik, a Radford University junior working in Pass Christian, Miss.
Malik, who plans to return during her winter break, was in Mississippi with 20 other Tech and Radford students from Campus Crusade for Christ. They spent four days roofing, doing insulation and drywall work, picking up debris, loading supplies, and cutting down damaged trees
Kulbok was among 54 representatives of Tech's Marching Virginians band and the YMCA at Virginia Tech who left last Sunday and were scheduled to return Friday.
That group spent their entire time in New Orleans, primarily helping residents dispose of their destroyed possessions and gutting the homes.
Yet another smaller group, led by Tech senior Cengiz Akinli, had traveled to Gulfport, Miss., primarily to make arrangements for a weeklong work trip in December sponsored by the Tau Beta Pi engineering honors society at Tech.
Akinli was planning to head south for only a day or two.
But the group of four ended up spending several days helping residents clean their homes in largely poor, marginalized neighborhoods.
While properties in more-affluent sections of town were showing signs of improvement, homes in poorer, predominantly black neighborhoods "looked like the hurricane just hit three days ago," he said.
"What we saw down there was absolutely amazing," Akinli said. "Every way the communities are segregated, so is the cleanup."
Akinli hopes to bring 60 to 70 volunteers back to those neighborhoods in December--that is, if they can raise enough money to pay for transportation and supplies.
Malik was equally surprised at how much devastation remained months after Katrina.
"I've never seen anything like it," she said as she was driving home Wednesday. "There are homes completely removed from their foundations, and you have no idea where they came from."
One home was actually sitting on railroad tracks, intact, she said.
Despite the devastation, both Kulbok and Malik said they were surprised that so many local residents were in such good spirits.
The group of Marching Virginians and YMCA volunteers spent Thanksgiving morning helping restore a historic site, although members lamented that the cleanup turned more into a media event.
After a lunch break, the volunteers headed to their host church to clean, pack, and get ready for the return trip. After all, the band members had a game to play in Blacksburg today.
Dave McKee, band director of the Marching Virginians, said he and all of the students will walk away changed individuals from the experience.
"These kids have been flat-out sensational," McKee said.
Staff writer Greg Esposito contributed to this story.