Baldwin students make a difference in Katrina-ravaged town

| Wednesday, April 3, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Bay St. Louis, Miss., a city of 9,000 residents, is the kind of community where strangers greet each other with smiles and on Thursday nights listen to live music at the Mockingbird Cafe.

Look closer and you see new businesses, homes and the sweet southern aesthetics of the city's name printed on lamp posts and refuse cans alike. Bay St. Louis, with it's weepy 400-year-old trees and soft sand beaches, is the quintessential southern beach town.

Even in the past year, though, students from Baldwin High School notice a city still in recovery from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which endured considerable damage from the storm. Where North Beach Boulevard once was lined with million dollar homes, there now are steps that lead to nowhere.

Sheds still contain debris from the storm; residents still cannot open up about the experiences of losing homes, belongings and loved ones.

“This town has come a long way but it still has a long way to go,” said Fallon Ferrari, a Baldwin High School senior, who spent the last two spring breaks volunteering in the area.

A group of about 40 people from Baldwin High School's VISION Club spent March 24-31 in Bay St. Louis, doing relief work and completing projects large and small.

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 manual labor.

But the VISION Club is changing. While the work completed still provided help to those affected by Hurricane Katrina, it was less building homes, stairs or decks than in years past. Most likely connections made through word-of-mouth, not government agencies, will drive future work, said Richard Yount, a retired Baldwin High School English teacher, who started the VISION Club.

“I'll come back here until there is no work left to do,” Yount said. “If you didn't see these pictures, you'd think there never was a storm here. That's how much progress they've made.”

The students on this trip aren't slackers looking for a class-free week of vacation. They are juniors and seniors at the top of their classes with acceptance letters to institutions such as the Massachusetts Institution of Technology, Northwestern University, Georgetown University, the University of Notre Dame and the University of California Berkeley, with plans to study marine biology, medicine, engineering and international relations.

One group spent the week at the home of Perry Ann Whavers, a sweet-natured 55-year-old, who needed the interior of her home repainted. The assignment quickly turned into more than that.

By the end of the week, the students, about 20 girls, had painted the interior and part of the exterior, power washed a back porch and fence, re-stained them and other miscellaneous tasks such as building chair rails, installing a ceiling fan and hanging decorations.

Whavers, a breast cancer survivor who is wheelchair-bound as a result of multiple sclerosis, continuously thanked the students throughout the week.

“I thank y'all for being good girls,” Whavers said. “I'll never forget this. . .God is good.”

That sentiment wasn't lost on the students.

“The littlest thing could be a lot of a person,” said Sara Conklin, a junior.

The crew worked with Whavers, who is particular about every detail of her home. They worked through responsibility and sharing issues. They worked to the beat of country music.

One senior, Caroline Witt, carefully sanded rust off porch furniture in preparation for spray painting. In some cases, she took rough objects completely oxidized and made them silver again.

Others, such as seniors Raquelle Reinheimer and Tori Scott, learned how to cut chair rails and find studs in the interior walls, while juniors Dani Hall, Jill McDonnell, Bridget Kaufman, Shannon Campolong, Allison Yotz and Victoria Schmotzer power washed and stained the backyard fence and porch.

“I'm here to make a difference in people's lives. . .We're here to make it happen,” Caparelli said.

What Whavers would share about her Hurricane Katrina story was that her home was destroyed and she lost a backyard apartment she had built for her son when crews came to rebuild her home. That apartment alone cost her $8,000 she'd never get back.

Still, Whavers gave each of the girls a small gift after the work was completed. The group returned the gesture by framing two photos of them with Whavers as gifts for her.

The second major project of the week was for the students to install an irrigation system at the St. Stanislaus College athletic complex. The school, which housed and fed the VISION Club members, planned to build a multipurpose field above the sprinkler system, said Brother Frances Fleming, grounds keeper of the St. Stanislaus College athletic fields.

The students on the irrigation crew learned plumbing, electrical, welding and engineering skills throughout the week.

The irrigation crew was rewarded with 120 pounds of crawfish for dinner on Thursday night after several successful system tests.

“To see every sprinkler system go off was satisfying,” Ferrari said. “That was really cool of (Fleming) to trust a bunch of 17- and 18-year-olds.”

The annual trip bonfire, held Friday night, was a time for everyone to speak about what they learned during the week. Yount said he was grateful that VISION Club still attracts such talented and kind students.

“I take the best of the best. . .you are special in so many ways,” Yount said.

Laura Van Wert is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5814 or at

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