Dec. 28, 2007 — Six University of Virginia engineering students delivered an early Christmas gift to the residents of Pearlington, Miss. — they helped build a community center.
The students, organized by U.Va. engineering professor Jack Brown and sent to Mississippi by Building Goodness, a local charitable foundation created by contractors, became part of an effort to assist Pearlington, which was completely devastated by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. The Pearl River, from which the community takes its name, rose 27 feet during the storm, higher than any building there.
Building Goodness has been involved with Pearlington since a few weeks after the hurricane, sending crews down to build shelters. The organization has now shifted its focus to building a community center, according to Jack Higgins, volunteer coordinator for Building Goodness. The community center could provide a central focus for the people of Pearlington.
The U.Va. six students — Ben Baker, Neil Choudhary, Ali Haider, Eyad Lababidi, Andrew Shuck and Xiang Wu — worked under the direction of Eric Courtney and Mike Marks, volunteer carpenters from Martin Horn Inc.
"There were a lot of houses, the foundation was gone and the house just crumbled and no one came back for it," said Choudhary, an electrical engineering student. "But there were plenty who have rebuilt and you could see some real progress."
The devastation of Pearlington was driven home to the volunteers when they went to other communities for meals groceries and necessities.
"There were casinos and Waffle Houses everywhere," engineering student Eyad Lababidi said of nearby Biloxi, where they went for dinner one night. "The smaller places haven't been built back. There are gaps between the buildings."
"There's a certain emptiness," Choudhary said. "We found a small restaurant on the pier, but you could tell there used to be more."
The trip was a fulfilling experience for the students.
"I always wanted to pick up shop and go someplace and volunteer to help people," Labadini said. "Now I know I can do it and enjoy it."
"This is a great way to help people out," Choudhary said. "I learned that it is something that makes me happy and that I can accomplish."
Most of the group were strangers to each other, but the students' chemistry worked well, Choudhary said, and they came back as friends, sad that their adventure was over.
"We were different ages, races, life styles," said Choudhary. "We would have just passed each other on the street, but then after two days of work, things clicked and it was easy to relax. The group looked out for each other."
Choudhary and Labadini, whose previous volunteer work had been tutoring local students, said they would like to return to Pearlington. They will have opportunities, because Building Goodness is still planning trips to the Mississippi community.