America's Tour Operators Clean Coast Attractions

Dan Dipert's hammer hit a nail, and the nail bent.

"All I can say is I normally hire somebody to get it done," he laughed.

Yet this project was so important, Dipert only trusted himself and a few of his tourism friends.

The volunteers took on the challenge of rebuilding the tree house village at Lynn Meadows Discovery Center. In the process, they laid the foundation for tourism's rebirth.

"We need to rebuild that. And it won't happen until these places are ready," he said. "So we need to them them get ready."

Dipert was with an organization called Tourism Cares for America. It brought 250 volunteers to the shores of south Mississippi. The collection of tour operators used a little elbow grease, and a green thumb to spruce up nine of the area's best known tourism magnets.

Steve Jolis came from Florida and volunteered his time.

"They want help. But they're willing to work alongside volunteers like ourselves to bring this place back to its glory," he said.

Jolis didn't know it. But he was describing Mary Anne Caldwell, a Lynn Meadows employee who grabbed a rake and worked as hard as the volunteers did.

"It goes back to that recover, rebuild concept," Caldwell said. "It's just a shot in the arm for our morale."

There was a time right before Katrina when the children's museum was nestled behind a meadow of lush, vibrant, live oaks. The hurricane stole their luster. And she weakened south Mississippi's tourism base. But she couldn't touch the industry's soul. Mary Beth Wilkerson came down from Jackson to help the tour operators clean up Lynn Meadows.

"For me, it's heartache," she said. "But also resilience. People are back. We're making it happen. And the gulf coast will be back very soon."

And when it returns, tourist attractions like Lynn Meadows will be there to make sure its guests fit right in.

Tourism Cares for America also cleaned the Mississippi Coast Coliseum, Beauvoir, the Maritime and Seafood Museum, the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum, Ship Island, the J.L. Scott Marine Education Center, D'Iberville and Pass Christian.

The Lynn Meadows Discovery Center is hosting an outdoor bluegrass festival in early May. If everything works out, the museum should reopen in June.