SHU Volunteers Return from Gulf Coast Rebuilding Mission

News Story:

FAIRFIELD – The plane ride north to New York on Sunday, Jan. 20, that brought home a Sacred Heart University delegation from the hurricane-ravaged Mississippi Gulf Coast, was a quiet one for the two dozen students and faculty who had made the trip.

They were exhausted by their week-long home-building efforts in Biloxi and they were lost in their own personal reflections on the life-changing mission.

For some – like freshman Amanda Francini, of Berlin, Conn. – it was the first time witnessing first-hand the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. “We drove by the coastline and it was incredible seeing foundations but no homes, miles of nothingness and dead trees,” Francini said.

Wealthier areas of some communities have already been rebuilt but many middle-and lower-income families are still struggling to reclaim some semblance of a normal life. The students were grateful for the chance to contribute to the families’ rebuilding efforts.

“I feel like I actually made a difference building a house for someone whose house was destroyed,” said Francini, who said the trip helped her think about how to spend her time here on earth.

Francini said a project leader at the Habitat for Humanity site, where the SHU team helped build a duplex, asked volunteers, ‘What does your ‘dash’ mean; the dash on your tombstone from the year you were born to the year you die. What are you going to do in life to make a difference?’

“Our trip really helped to fill our dash. You get the sense that you can make a difference in people’s lives. We’re really fortunate to have what we have. These people lost everything,” Francini said.

Michael Pezza, a junior exercise science major from Brooklyn, New York, on his first trip to Mississippi, said the work they did was fulfilling. “You get so much out of it. You’re helping the people and you’re helping yourself too. You realize how fortunate you really are,” he said.

The contingent also spent time working in the classrooms of a rebuilt school that was left under nine feet of water after Katrina hit and visiting families they had helped on the three previous SHU-sponsored trips to the region.

“We got to know the families and felt we had a helping hand in their recovery. We’ve made some lasting connections down here,” said Mike Giarratano, assistant professor of education and co-leader of the trip.

Dr. Shirley Pavone, assistant professor of psychology, making her second SHU trip to Mississippi, said everyone benefited greatly from the experience, especially the University’s students.

“It plants a seed of service for the rest of their lives. We want to carry this experience back home with us to work in our own communities, to do something for someone without expecting something in return. They recognize that they have a responsibility to the community,” Pavone said.

“The students are really living the mission of Sacred Heart. Our kids are great,” Giarratano said.