The following article featuring VISIONS and Mississippi alum Yongqi Xu is from the Los Angeles Times.

Wanderlust Lands Irvine Teen in Hurricane Katrina-Devastated Areas
August 28, 2015

When Irvine resident Yongqi Xu was in search of a summer adventure, she knew she wanted something that would combine her two passions — traveling and volunteering.

Little did she know that the path she picked would take her to two coastal cities ravaged by Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago. She ended up in Gulfport and Moss Point, Miss., where homes and communities were still struggling to rebuild after the August 2005 storm.

“I wanted to do something that would take me to a place I had never been before,” she said. “I found some that were outside the country but for my first volunteer trip I thought I’d stay in America.”

The 17-year-old, who goes by the nickname Mary joined up with Visions Service Adventures, an organization that operates community service based summer programs for middle and high school students.

She applied for a spot for their Mississippi trip in July.

In the summer of 2006 — one year after Hurricane Katrina hit the southern coastal communities, leaving the highest number of fatalities in Louisiana and Mississippi — Visions sent its first group to Mississippi to help rebuild the community.

After Mary received a spot in the program this summer, she journeyed to southern Mississippi to work with the Visions staff and the nine other students who signed up for the trip.

The group spent the last week and a half of July repairing the fireplace, bathroom and drywall of a home in north Gulfport and built a walkway through a swamp in Moss Point.

“When people hear ‘Hurricane Katrina’ the first thing that comes to mind is New Orleans, but it’s important to know there are other small communities that were hit,” Visions’ Mississippi Program Director Megan Prettyman said. “Some of their homes are still missing roofs and haven’t been touched in 10 years.”

For 27 years, Visions has arranged for volunteers to travel to locations like Alaska, Cambodia, Dominican Republic, Myanmar, Nicaragua and Peru.

Mary and her peers — who had traveled to the south from Seattle, Washington D.C., other cities in California, and even France — stayed in a church in Moss Point during the program.

Although it had been 10 years since the hurricane struck Gulfport, the house the group worked on was still in need of interior construction, Prettyman said.

“Mary was never afraid to jump into a project and get her hands dirty,” she said. “Her spirit really lifted the group. She’s the type of person you need on a trip like this.”

Before the construction began, the Irvine teen said she recalls feeling “really intimidated” at the task. It was her first time getting her hands on a hammer and a crowbar.

“I had never used tools before, so it was pretty scary,” Mary said. “But my favorite part was seeing the way things looked after we fixed them. It makes you proud knowing that you made that happen.”

According to Prettyman, the house is in better shape after the group’s repairs but there is still a lot of work to be done.

The walkway in Moss Point is complete, she said.

“The best part about Visions is that we go back to the places we’ve served,” Prettyman said. “[Mississippi residents] say a lot of people ask them if things here have gotten back to normal yet and they say ‘There is no normal, we never went back.’ We want them to know that we haven’t forgotten about them.”

This school year, Mary will graduate from Stevenson School, a boarding school in Pebble Beach.

As an upcoming graduate, she said she’s unsure whether or not she can re-apply for Visions’ high school program. But her volunteer travels will not end at Mississippi.

“I know I want to go other places like Brazil, Australia or maybe even Spain,” Mary said. “Really, I would like any place that has a unique culture and amazing people.”