Giving the Gulf Coast a break

University of Central Arkansas students Courtney Davis (left), Monica Fite and Benedict Igwe remove tree limbs from a Lake Charles, La., cemetery March 22.
University of Central Arkansas students Courtney Davis (left), Monica Fite and Benedict Igwe remove tree limbs from a Lake Charles, La., cemetery March 22.

The Gulf Coast may have been the hot spot for college spring break trips this year, but not because it offered wild parties and great sun-tanning potential. Instead thousands went to help, to serve, even to minister to those in need after hurricanes devastated the region last fall.
Three Catholic Campus Ministry groups from Arkansas were part of this effort. Though called mission trips, the experience was part retreat and part pilgrimage as well. Unsure of what to expect, but convicted in their desire to do whatever was needed, these students went with work gloves in hand to Bay St. Louis, Miss., Lake Charles, La., and New Orleans March 19-25.

Three schools, three missions
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Arkansas Tech University students from Russellville went to a nursing home in Marrero, La., a New Orleans suburb. It was the sixth annual ATU spring break trip to Wynhoven Healthcare Center, a facility operated by the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Instead of the usual landscaping chores, the group cleaned and organized storage buildings, performed clerical tasks, helped move residents to a newly renovated wing and assisted staff in sorting through donated clothing.
The nursing home did not flood and only sustained minor wind damage from Hurricane Katrina. But other problems were created by the Aug. 29 storm, including staff and residents who have not returned since the city’s evacuation.
Jane Fockler, Wynhoven administrator, said she was grateful for the students’ help.
“It gives you hope in the future to see young people that should be out having a good time give up their free time to come and help,” she said.
The group also toured the Lakeview area and the Ninth Ward, both flooded by levee breaches.
Pat Buford, ATU campus ministry director, said the flood damage is unimaginable.
“You’ve seen it on the news, but it just didn’t even touch it,” she said.
Ben Lensing, an ATU senior from Scranton, said the destruction “looked like somebody had dropped a bomb in the middle of New Orleans.”
“My spring break wasn’t all that important. I may not be doing much, but I don’t know, maybe it helps,” he said. “I know it helps the people here. They sure seem to appreciate it.”
Arkansas State University students from Jonesboro went to Bay St. Louis, Miss., a small town east of New Orleans. Along with neighboring Waveland and Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis was devastated when Hurricane Katrina made landfall at the Louisiana-Mississippi border.
On Monday, March 20, the students were assigned yard work at the home of Dr. Dale and Melanie Loiacano, a Catholic couple, who along with their four children moved to Jonesboro after the hurricane.
For two days, students removed drywall, brush and other debris in the yard. They also recovered personal belongings that had washed up from the water surge that flooded the family’s two-story home. From the outside, the damage is not evident, but a closer look reveals the first floor has been gutted.
On March 21, Father Matt Garrison, associate pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in Jonesboro, celebrated Mass for Melanie Loiacano and son, Matthew, 9, in the family’s garage. The Loiacanos were in town to meet with contractors during spring break.
Loiacano said the ASU students were “a wonderful blessing and a joy to be around.”
Jeff Doyle, an ASU freshman from El Dorado, said he came on the mission trip because he “just wanted to come and help.”
“I know I’m healthy, I’m strong and I just wanted to do something. I wanted to help make somebody’s life just a little bit better,” he said.
That afternoon, Jimmy Loiacano, the Bay St. Louis city official charged with coordinating volunteers, led the ASU group on a tour of hurricane destruction. All that remains of most homes along the coastline is a concrete slab. Clothing and other debris still hang from the trees.
“All of us were in total shock of the sheer devastation and damage,” Father Garrison said. “We see so much that needs to be done. It is just overwhelming.”
On March 22, the group went to New Orleans where they toured the Ninth Ward and visited Notre Dame Seminary and the French Quarter.
University of Central Arkansas students from Conway went to Lake Charles, La., to assist with cleanup efforts from Hurricane Rita. Lake Charles is about 60 miles inland, but it still received major damage from hurricane-force winds, rain and tornadoes.
Conway pastor Father Tom Byrne, CSSp, previously served Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Lake Charles. After the storm he contacted Milton Bellard, grand knight of the Knights of Peter Claver at the parish. That set the college mission trip into motion.
Though rain spoiled plans on March 20, Bellard put the students to work early March 21-23 from a list of requests by his parishioners. They cleared debris, mowed grass and pulled weeds in yards and a community cemetery. They spray-washed mold off the home of a 109-year-old parishioner and picked up litter at local school. They served meals at a local food pantry, toured coastal destruction in Cameron, La., and met the Lake Charles mayor.
“These students came here to work,” campus minister Deacon Richard Papini said.
Five members of the UCA group were from other countries, including a seminarian from Tanzania, an exchange student from the Ukraine, two Nigerians and one Nicaraguan.
Sarah Dennis, a UCA sophomore from Russellville, said the most meaningful part of the trip for her was witnessing the spirit of the people.
“Everybody we’ve met has been so amazing … They’re so happy to have us here and so grateful,” she said. “We’re fortunate to be able to have so much and to give a week isn’t really a whole lot.”

Three schools, three missions

ARKANSAS TECH: Father Ernest Hardesty and campus ministry director Pat Buford took six students from Arkansas Tech University in Russellville to work at Wynhoven Healthcare Center in Marrero, a West Bank suburb of New Orleans.

ARKANSAS STATE: Father Matt Garrison and campus ministry director Mary Ruth Staudt took six students from Arkansas State University in Jonesboro to clear debris in Bay St. Louis, Miss.

UNIVERSITY OF CENTRAL ARKANSAS: Campus ministry director Deacon Richard Papini took 11 students, including five internationals, from the University of Central Arkansas in Conway to Lake Charles, La.

Tara Little

Tara Little joined Arkansas Catholic in 2000 and has served in various capacities, including production manager and associate editor. Since 2006 she has managed the website for the Diocese of Little Rock.

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