A Teen's Experience in Biloxi, Mississippi

By Leanne McLaughlin, Holy Spirit, Orleans

On August 14, 2006 the Church of the Holy Spirit's Youth Group set out on a life changing adventure. We arrived at the church at six in the morning, suitcases packed, eager to get on the plane. None of us had any idea the gift we were about to receive when we finally arrived in Biloxi, Mississippi. After driving about two hours from the New Orleans Airport, we arrived at Bethel Lutheran Church. We were greeted by a couple, Ed and Eunice, a volunteer couple from West Virginia living in a trailer in the back of the church. We were escorted to the sanctuary where we set up camp. Bethel Lutheran Church provided us with comfortable air mattresses that we arranged along the sides of the church pews.

In the mornings we would wake up at six o'clock and Eunice would make us a hearty breakfast that filled our stomachs so we could work our hearts out. When we got back from work, usually around four o'clock, we would have two and a half hours before dinner at six-thirty. Dinner, like breakfast, was prepared by Eunice. She took meal requests and made all of us felt at home with her comfort food. Meal time was always nice because it was a time when all of the other volunteers also staying at Bethel Lutheran Church could chat about their days work or stories they heard. Everyone felt so blessed to be there. After dinner our Youth Group would have a service where we would sing and Zach Davis would strum along on his guitar. At ten o'clock, lights at Bethel Lutheran Church would go out, which usually was not a problem because we were so exhausted.

The next day we began our real mission: cleaning and rebuilding the broken city, or at least trying to give people hope. We drove along Ocean Drive toward The Church of the Redeemer where we were preparing for a memorial service for Hurricane Camille (of 1969) that was going to be held at the church a few days later. When you are told you will be cleaning up a church yard, you expect to see a church. That, however, was not the case because the church was completely demolished by Hurricane Katrina. We spent a grueling day in the hot heat, picking up debris and weeding a yard that had obviously not been touched for about a year since the storm. While we picked up the yard, we found pieces of stained glass that were shattered on the ground. The Youth Group is putting those pieces of glass together to make a cross that we plan on sending to the Church of the Redeemer.

After the Church of the Redeemer was cleaned up and ready for a memorial service, we began our harder work. My mom, Robin, would make a trip to the local Soup Kitchen, Loaves and Fishes, where we served lunch to the homeless. This was one of my favorite jobs because of the number of people we encountered there every day. Robin went to the kitchen almost everyday that we were in Biloxi, and I was blessed enough to be there three times. We served a hot meal, a drink, and gave them a bagged lunch to carry with them on their journey. All of the homeless people were so thankful for our help. The other helpers in the kitchen informed us that most of the people who come to Loaves and Fishes only eat this one meal a day. Loaves and Fishes is only open Monday through Friday and only serves lunch. Some of these people only eat one meal a day, not including the weekends. Another thing that made this job particularly fun is all of the characters who came through the door. The overly nice workers who flirted with the young lady volunteers, the men who had no idea what was going on because they were not exactly in their right states of mind, but they all had one thing in common: they were grateful.

Leanne McLaughlin and Lilly Leanne McLaughlin and Lilly

When the harder jobs of tiling and dry-walling came, our Youth Group team split up. Mark, Connie, and Robin lead the dry-walling while Richard handled the tiling. I was working on the dry-walling. We began work on the Graafmeyer's house three weeks after they moved back into their home. Before that they were living in a FEMA trailer in their front yard. The first thing i took notice of was a little black Lab and Chihuahua mix that was jumping around in a crate on the front porch. This little dog's name was Boo. When I would go to the house, I spent as much time as I could playing with the dog who had not been walked for a few weeks. The last few days we were there I finally asked Debbie, the mom of the house, if I could take their spunky little dog for a walk. She said "Yes, Please!" Boo and I had a wonderful time running in the heat and when he got back to his crate, he passed out in a deep slumber. The next day when I came to the house, Debbie came outside hand in hand with her six-year-old daughter, Lilly. Debbie asked me if I would take Boo and Lilly for a walk. That day, I watched a little girl grow and let go of all of the fear and sadness in her life. Lilly, Boo, and I swam in the water near their house, we walked circles around the neighborhood, we did arts and crafts, she gave all of us numerous body tattoos, and we did everything you could imagine. Before that day Lilly was terrified of the water, scared of rain and thunder, did not care too much for her little dog Boo, she was shy and did not like to have her picture taken. That day meant the world to me, Lilly, and Debbie. as we were leaving Debbie hugged me and said "You have no idea how much it means to me to see my daughter enjoying herself again." I wanted to say to her "you have no idea what it means to me to have been blessed enough to meet your little girl and help her see the sunshine."

While in Biloxi, our Youth Group along with the other volunteers helping down there, were the face of God. We were the ones filling these people’s hearts with hope again. I cannot describe in words the impact we all felt from just being there. I truly felt like i was part of the face of God and that is the best feeling in the world. We are now preparing for a second trip down there and I hope everyone can somehow involve themselves. I cannot stress enough how little you can do to help, a little bit goes a very long way. Please help us rebuild hearts, lives, love, and faith.

-August 2006-