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Baldwin students tackle post-Katrina landscape in Mississippi

| Wednesday, March 27, 2013, 9:04 p.m.
Laura Van Wert | South Hills Record
Jill McDonell (left) and Dani Hall power wash a fence at a private residence in Bay St. Louis, Miss. Group members thought they would only be painting at the home, but once they arrived, they found more projects to do.
Laura Van Wert | South Hills Record
Richard Yount (bottom), the group's adviser, shows Carla Nicola (left) and Raquelle Reinheimer how to install a chair rail.

BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss.— Students from Baldwin High School traveled to this small community this week to help rebuild what Hurricane Katrina destroyed in 2005 along the Gulf Coast.

Thirty-one students from Baldwin High School are in Bay St. Louis to work in small teams, completing projects large and small as part of the school's VISION Club.

“When you get down here, you put yourself in their shoes and you want to give so much,” said Caroline Witt, a senior, who also participated in last year's trip.

“Once you hear the stories that people have, you want to make their lives better.”

The group, which started months after Hurricane Katrina, returns to Bay St. Louis every year to rebuild homes, paint, clean up debris and perform other physical work. About 9,000 people live in the town.

The club started Monday morning at three sites — one group picking up debris, one is putting together an irrigation system, and a third is working in a resident's home, painting her interior and powerwashing the exterior porch and fence.

The group returns on Easter Sunday. The group left Pittsburgh on March 24 in two groups of students flying from Pittsburgh to Atlanta and then on to New Orleans. The groups then rented vans and drove to Bay St. Louis, which is about an hour away.

A ground crew of adults left Pittsburgh Saturday morning with all of the luggage and tools. That trip took about 18 hours.

Preparation for the trip takes months.

“We have lots of work to do here,” said Richard Yount, VISION Club adviser.

Yount, a retired Baldwin High School English teacher, traveled to Bay St. Louis to help residents shortly after Hurricane Katrina. Since then, he has worked with Baldwin-Whitehall School District leaders to bring groups of students — sometimes as few as nine and sometimes more than 50 — to the community.

Spots on the trip are coveted. A fraction of the students that show interest in going actually get to go each year because of the logistics of traveling with and supervising the teenagers, Yount said. Eight adult chaperones — some former VISION Club members and some parents — supervise the group.

The group consists of Baldwin juniors and seniors, some of whom attended previous trips but for the most part are newcomers. The students must obtain teacher recommendations to be considered for the trip.

Dani Hall, a junior and first-timer on the trip, said watching the damage Katrina caused on the news had a lasting effect on her. The trip is an opportunity for her to give back to those in need, but also to do it with her friends and classmates.

“You hear on the news that it was bad ... It's seven or eight years later and there's still a lot that needs done,” Hall said. “I thought we had it bad (in Pittsburgh), but ... these people needed to get their houses out of the water, not the water out of their houses.”

Others on the trip, such as Matt Kelly and Kelsey DeCort, are VISION Club alumni who are in their fourth and third years, respectively, of coming on the trip.

“Seeing the students grow throughout the week is great,” Kelly said. “As long as they're learning.”

The group stays in the dormitory of St. Stanislaus, a Catholic residency and day school for boys in grades seven through 12 and even post-graduate, both U.S. residents and international citizens. They eat in the campus cafeteria.

VISION Club members watched video Wednesday night taken by St. Stanislaus students during Hurricane Katrina, as well as footage Yount documented in the aftermath.

Financing for the trip comes from several sources. VISION Club works with the Rotary Club and FedEX, while each student and chaperone pays for dues and airfare out of pocket.

A week of meals and residency at St. Stanislaus costs about $10,000, Yount said. The students make up that cost by selling raffle tickets for a signed Sidney Crosby jersey and tickets to a Pirates game.

The local Rotary Club also donated $2,000 this year toward the housing and food, Yount said.

Laura Van Wert, staff writer, is reporting from Bay St. Louis for the week. Check out the full story on the VISION Club 2013 trip in the April 4 issue of the South Hills Record. To read her live-tweets all week, follow her on Twitter @LVSouthHillsRec.

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