PEARLINGTON, MS (WLOX) - A sudden change of plans took dozens of Illinois high school students somewhere they say they never expected to be - South Mississippi.
Every summer, First Presbyterian of Arlington Heights takes its youth group on a mission trip south of the border. However, this year church officials canceled the trip because of escalating violence in Mexico. So this past week, the teen volunteers spent their time rebuilding houses in Pearlington.
A quick explanation and a short demonstration was all that was needed for 35 high school students to be ready to enter the world of the construction.
"It's been a great learning experience," said volunteer Molly Meier. "I've never had to use a drill before and now I know how to do that. None of us have any experience in construction or anything, but we have a great team behind us helping us out."
The Illinois volunteers say working in the South Mississippi humidity was a major adjustment.
Volunteer Brad Koerner said, "It's tiring, but it's rewarding at the same time. We feel a sense of satisfaction after we're done at the end of each day. It's not like we go back dreading the next day. We look forward to each day."
Not everyone from the church was eager to make the trip to Pearlington. The church usually takes its senior youth group on summer mission trips to Mexico.
"I was really excited about going to Mexico," said Kylene Wolfe, a recent high school graduate. "At the beginning I was like, 'I'm not going to Mississippi.' I'm used to going to Mexico. That's where my family is for me, because that's where I've been the last three years."
"I talked to the people at our church and I realized it would be selfish of me not to come serve somewhere else. Because, to be honest, I completely forgot about Hurricane Katrina. The buzz was all about Katrina the first few years. But then I completely forgot. I didn't know there was stuff still going on."
The young volunteers say they now realize that the impact of Hurricane Katrina didn't end when the national media stopped showing the images.
Tim Murray also came down from the Chicago area to help. He said, "The media shoots a lot of times an image of New Orleans being recovered and you just think of Katrina and New Orleans. You don't think of Mississippi. This trip has really been eye opening as to the destruction. We're showing a community that they have not been forgotten and that we're going to rebuild their homes and their lives. "
Volunteers say they've been touched by the kindness of the people who live here have shown them, particularly a Hancock County woman named Kate.
"She said, 'I am so thankful for you guys to be here. And even though you're not working on my house, I just want you to know I appreciate what you're doing.' She was sitting out there. She is living in a tent right now. She has three sons that are serving in the Army. She's still volunteering time for that when there is still this going on. So for me, it's creating new family here and helping out people that were forgotten," Kylene Wolfe said.
The teens said they want to encourage others to come here and help rebuild. They plan to go back to Illinois and tell others what they've seen as to the needs still in Mississippi.
The youth group was working through Experience Mission, a non-profit that coordinates volunteer labor, and One House at a Time which is a charity that provides construction materials.