South Mississippi proof that volunteerism works

By Brad Kessie - bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - On the eve of his inauguration, President-elect Barack Obama reminded America that government can't do it alone. Everybody, he said, must take responsibility to clean up a vacant lot, or tutor a child.

No where in America is there better evidence of how volunteerism works than in south Mississippi. For more than three years, volunteers have used their muscles and their clout to rebuild our community.

On Monday, a new group of volunteers surfaced. This group of community college students used the memory of Martin Luther King, and the inspiration of Barack Obama to recommitment themselves to south Mississippi.

Serge Huidobro was one of the volunteers barbecuing hamburgers and hot dogs on Porter Avenue in Biloxi.

"We can have one person with plates and buns," he said, trying to figure out how homeless people would go through a line to get food.

Huidobro once dreamed about being in Washington for Barack Obama's inauguration.

"We need to change the direction of this country," he said about the Obama presidency.

But his trip got side tracked, because weeks before election day, Huidobro agreed to be part of a community service project.

So on the eve of Obama's historic swearing in ceremony, the poly sci student, and several of his Gulf Coast Community College classmates prepared lunch for homeless people around Biloxi.

"What this does is it encourages young people to step up and serve," said Huidobro.

Leah Lyman is a case worker with El Pueblo, the organization that works to give immigrants and the homeless a voice in south Mississippi. Her group benefited from the MGCCC Big Give service project.

Lyman said the project "is a chance to give back to the community, but also to let Biloxi and the Mississippi Gulf Coast know that there are homeless people here, and that we're part of the greater community."

The community college had more than 60 students at four Martin Luther King Day service projects in Biloxi and Gulfport.

For instance, Kevin Kotula was at the barbecue.

"Today's my dad's birthday," he said, "and the only reason why I would break away from celebrating with him is to help the community."

For Kotula, the memory of Dr. King, and the hope inspired by President-elect Obama served as a source of pride and optimism.

"It's no longer about I'm black, you're white, or I'm rich and you're poor," Kotula said. "It's about you're a person and I'm a person, and we both need to help one another."

When Phillip Sanders heard about the Biloxi block party, the Orange Grove man told his children he found a great place to celebrate the legacies of Dr. King and Mr. Obama. So, while he flipped burgers and hot dogs, his two children prepared the next batch of food to go on the grill. For Sanders, honoring Dr. King and Barack Obama through volunteerism taught his kids a valuable life lesson.

"To let them know that it's better to be a giving person than to always want to receive on the other end," he said.

His daughter Christiana, a National Honor Society student at Harrison Central High School, appreciated the experience.

"It would just be nice to help out on this day, because it really is special. And I think people should go out and help," she said.

An additional 260 members of the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps were also on the coast, following President-elect Obama's lead by providing volunteer assistance to needy people across south Mississippi.