Rebuilding Volunteers Take A Very Short Holiday Break

Hilary Nespe was once a volunteer who came to the coast from Wisconsin to help hurricane victims clean their properties. Now, she's a staff member at Camp Biloxi, a volunteer behind Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. She addressed volunteers at a Thanksgiving feast in their honor.

"From the camp, we'd like to say Happy Thanksgiving and thank you for spending your vacation down here helping out the gulf coast," Nespe says.

The volunteers came for this Thanksgiving feast from all over America. Bill Duey brought a crew of college students from Chicago. Jim Holton came down from Ambler, Pennsylvania. Mary Miarer lives in Green Springs, Ohio. They all spent Thanksgiving together in south Mississippi, hundreds of miles from their families.

University of Virginia student Nathan Doane said he came to Biloxi to get away from school, "and just help out the homes down here hurt by Hurricane Katrina."

The rebuilding work has been hard, and occasionally dangerous. Just ask Jim Holton.

"This morning I was working on a house, a board fell on my hand unfortunately," he says after eating his Thanksgiving feast with his left hand.

You see, the other hand was in a sling. It was "well worth it" he says, because he knew the work he did earlier in the week would "be of some use to the people that need help down here."

It's easy for volunteers to forget the pain when they look around and see the faces of the people you're helping. Tears filled Johnny Bruce's eyes when he was asked why he spent Thanksgiving week in Biloxi rather than his North Carolina home.

"Guys like him. Guys like him," he says, pointing toward Gulfport native Elmer Frost. "That's what we're here for."

Bruce has been working on Mr. Frost's home. He brought the Gulfport man to Camp Biloxi so they could share a Thanksgiving meal together.

"Oh God bless them," Frost saysd. "It's unbelievable. The help and the encouragement they are."

The cooks who put together Camp Biloxi's volunteer feast came from the University of Illinois. Don Block is the food services director on the Champaign campus.

"We started cooking these turkeys about six this morning," Block says while holding up the lid of a smoking grill behind Camp Biloxi's mess hall.

Block smoked about two dozen birds. And then his culinary students sliced them.

"We were down here in June with a small group," Block says. "We just thought we wanted to come back. And there was so much work left to do. But we also wanted in the spirit of Thanksgiving to do something that gives some people that don't have a chance a Thanksgiving dinner."

Once dinner was over, Mary Miarer said she would do the dishes. Miarer is 81. The Ohio woman called her volunteer trip to Biloxi one of the most rewarding experiences of her life.

"This is wonderful. It's been wonderful," Miarer says.

She was referring to the holiday food, the volunteers' comradrie, and the rebuilding work they were all doing hundreds of miles from their homes.