This past summer VISIONS took 26 students to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The program enrollment was one more than our maximum limit of 25. In fact, VISIONS Mississippi was one of the first programs to fill last year, and as late as May we were turning away interested students. The desire to help Katrina recovery efforts says a lot about today’s youth. So did reports coming back from the field in general last summer. The impression shared by VISIONS leaders across the board, especially seasoned staffers who’ve led many programs, was that their groups were as on board, ready to work and as open to learning as they possibly could have been. This uniformity of intent also is apparent in the program evaluations we’ve received from participants expressing high satisfaction with their experiences from Tanacross Village, Alaska, to Urubamba, Peru. Service in a cultural immersion setting is as relevant and rewarding now as it was in VISIONS first summer in 1989. We are privileged to be stewards of VISIONS, an endeavor that draws such great teens, such tremendously talented young adult leaders, and which involves such exceptional individuals with whom we work every season in all of our locations.
Community Service in the Gulf Port ~ Mississippi Gumbo
26 Participants, including two Georgia Peaches
6 Staff (One a demigod; another a Canadian)
1 Cup Mississippi Mud
3 Handfuls Ship Island sand
20 lbs of fresh gulf shrimp
1 Chop saw
2 dozen hammers
2 Aerobics sessions at the Isiah Fredericks Senior Center
1 Pinch New Orleans Jazz
Place ingredients in the North Gulfport Middle School and simmer for 4 weeks, stirring frequently.
It took just the right mix of people, projects and fun to make VISIONS’ first summer in Mississippi a success. The initial plan was to provide relief to some of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina, which rushed ashore in August 2005 with a nearly 30 foot storm surge and 150 mph winds.
Our main project was the construction of an outdoor environmental classroom, built on the grounds of the North Gulfport Middle School, our host. We built the classroom behind the school, close to Turkey Creek, a historic tidal river of key importance to the biological and cultural environment of the North Gulfport/Turkey Creek neighborhood and of equal significance as a historic African American enclave located near the crossroads of Interstate 10 and Route 49.
Threatened by encroaching development sprawl, community leaders Rose Johnson of the North Gulfport Community Land Trust and Derrick Evans of Turkey Creek Community Initiatives are capitalizing on Turkey Creek’s strategic position as a wetland and recreational area, in order to help the community recover and develop. For Rose and Derrick and other community members, saving North Gulfport/Turkey Creek is a continuous struggle with high stakes involved. Derrick grew up on the Creek, playing under the densely wooded canopy, and Rose, like other residents, was baptized in its waters. It was Rose and Derrick who paved the way for VISIONS to North Gulfport and who worked hard to help make our project a success.
I realized this past summer that you don’t come to the Gulf Coast for its fascinating geography; you come for the fascinating people. The cast of characters we met included Cicero, the barber, ice cream maker and expert mason who advised us on the cement floor for our classroom. When the cement truck came to unload, its driver, who had “Big O” stenciled on his name tag, proceeded to spend the day teaching us the art of cement-laying. Turns out that “Big O” is also Reverend Othell Adkins at Bibleway Baptist Church. It didn’t take much convincing to accept the invitation for all 32 of us to attend a service at Bibleway, at which Rev. Adkins and his congregation, in a matter of 40 minutes (the air conditioner was broken) embraced us literally and figuratively as part of their community, and reminded us why many Mississippians would spend a searing July day at church, singing, clapping having a good ol’ time. We went back to Bibleway the following Sunday, and we even attended the wedding of the Big O’s sister.
We mustn’t forget the La Salles, Mary and Mark, who come from Louisiana Cajun roots. Mark is known statewide for his leading educational and advocacy role as Coast Project Director for Audubon Mississippi. We had a blast of a BBQ with the La Salles in Moss Point at the site of a new Audubon Society Center that Mark has proposed and is fundraising for. We fished on the Bayou, took Mark’s flatboat out for a spin and even had some success at crabbing using a Dinty Moore meal as bait. Oh, and we also met Josie, Mark’s pet Hissing Cockroach. Some of us even got to hold her.
After a month of hard, hot work we invited as many of these marvelous people as possible to the ‘grand opening’ celebration of completion of the outdoor classroom. It was a fine day with over 100 guests in attendance. Flowers White fried up some of the best catfish you’ve ever had. The kids (aka participants) took some of our guests on walks down to the Creek. The finale was a ceremonial drilling of the last roof screws, executed by three of our participants with a little help from a power drill. Then, we all sat in the finished classroom, stuffed ourselves with Flowers’ catfish and Cicero’s lemon ice cream and watched the sun set one more time into the Mississippi sky.
The inaugural summer for VISIONS in Mississippi may be over, but by no means is VISIONS done in the Gulf. The Katrina relief effort along the Gulf Coast will continue for years. The devastation was of a magnitude not seen in this country, and rebuilding will take a long time.
Our Mississippi program is on the roster again this season. There are still plenty of ongoing recovery efforts to assist, ideas about a possible trail system throughout the Turkey Creek Greenway, oral history projects at a local senior center, house building with Habitat for Humanity and many others. Rose and Derrick have big plans for the North Gulfport/Turkey Creek area, and we want to help make their dreams a reality.
And as it turns out the outdoor classroom we built, apart from being put to good use daily by the school, has seen use by political royalty as well. On October 7th, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announced Derrick Evans as America’s newest “Waterkeeper” for Turkey Creek, as part of the nationwide Waterkeeper Alliance that seeks to protect important watersheds through legal means. The program engages a committed local as spokesperson and figurehead for advocacy efforts to protect these rivers by bestowing the title “Waterkeeper” and providing support in their efforts. Robert Kennedy Jr. made this announcement while standing in our outdoor classroom.
It is months later, and I continue to reflect on life lessons from my summer in Mississippi. During one of the services we attended, Reverend Adkins managed to find the good in a seemingly hopeless situation. He told the congregation that “if it weren’t for Katrina, we never would have met VISIONS.” Hurricane recovery might have been the reason to come to the Gulf Coast, but people like the Big O, Rose Johnson, Derrick Evans and Mark La Salle inspire us to keep coming.