ST. MARTIN (WLOX) -- They worked under dark, dreary skies and a soggy mess on Arthur Avenue in St. Martin. But the volunteers didn't seem to mind at all.
"I'd be back in Illinois, with the cold weather and all the snow," said volunteer Lori Saligram. "This is beautiful for us."
Saligram is among 17 students from Illinois State University, who gave up their Spring Break to build houses in South Mississippi. They're part of Habitat for Humanity's Collegiate Challenge.
"I live in Chicago, and haven't had the chance to come down and see the damage that's been done," said volunteer Loren Leeberg.
"We've seen a lot of pictures and a couple of good descriptions of what it was like, but this is our first time seeing this. It takes it to a whole new level of real," said volunteer Alex Sherfy.
Seeing Katrina's destruction first-hand made the trip seem so worthwhile for the students.
"Last year, I was in Vegas," Sherfy said. "We just wanted to do something that was right for once, instead of something we wanted to do."
"It's been really great. I've been learning a lot," said Saligram.
While they work, the students are picking up all sorts of construction skills. The experience they gain will actually help them in their future careers.
Sherfy is one of five student volunteers who are majoring in Construction Management.
"The Construction Management program at ISU doesn't offer a lot of technical background. It's just the management side of everything," said Sherfy. "So this is really gives me a chance to get out and get some technical experience."
And they gain something else you can't learn in a classroom -- a sense of pride.
"I don't know who's going to live here, but I'm giving back. And that feels great," said Leeberg.
Students from Vermont Law School, Texas A&M, Coe College in Iowa, and the University of Florida are also spending the week in the Gulf Coast area. They're working on Habitat houses in St. Martin, Pascagoula, and Gulfport.
This spring break, 12,000 students have signed up to participate in Habitat's Collegiate Challenge across the country. They will travel to 210 locations across the United States. The program has been in existence for 19 years.