With memories still vivid of the volunteers aiding her hurricane-ravaged hometown of Bay St. Louis, award winning journalist and University of Southern Mississippi alumna Kathleen Koch returned the favor last weekend to those impacted by Superstorm Sandy.
An author and freelance journalist who previously covered the White House and the impact of Hurricane Katrina for CNN, Koch recently joined a group of AmeriCorps volunteers helping those impacted by the October 2012 storm. A category 1 hurricane when it hit the Northeast U.S., Hurricane Sandy caused extensive damage in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.
Koch's award-winning efforts in covering Katrina's impact and the aftermath for the CNN Special "Saving My Hometown: The Fight for Bay St. Louis" are recounted in her book, "Rising from Katrina: How My Mississippi Hometown Lost It All and Found What Mattered." Inspired by the outpouring of help from across the country along the Gulf Coast following Katrina, Koch was ready to help in the recovery from Sandy.
"From the moment Hurricane Sandy struck, I planned to volunteer in the cleanup," Koch said. "More than a million people have poured south since Hurricane Katrina to help rebuild the Mississippi Gulf Coast, so I knew this was my chance to pay it forward."
Along with her daughter Kara McNaney and McNaney's boyfriend Sean Stewart, the three drove early Friday, Dec. 28 from their homes in Maryland to volunteer with the Atlantic County AmeriCorps Disaster Response team for three days. With volunteers from as far away as California and Washington state, the group has operated out of Community Presbyterian Church in Brigantine, N.J., assisting elderly and underserved residents of Atlantic City.
Koch and other volunteers removed walls, damaged insulation, furniture and other household items from flood and wind-impacted homes, including from inside narrow crawl spaces.
"The work was dirty and exhausting, but the gratitude from those we helped was so touching," she said. "I saw how just as in Mississippi, our mere presence gave them hope to carry on. It was an amazing experience and we plan to go back again - this time to help Sandy-impacted areas to the north."
Koch didn't miss the opportunity to show her Golden Eagle pride during the cleanup, donning a Southern Miss hat to keep warm. "Since we were close to Philadelphia, one of the AmeriCorps workers asked if I was wearing a Philadelphia Eagles hat," she said. "'No,' I replied proudly. I'm a Golden Eagle from USM in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Wearing it all three days was a physical reminder of the reason for our trip."
Koch also gave a signed copy of her book to keep at the church for all AmeriCorps volunteer teams to read as they cycle through.
AmeriCorps is a national program of the Corporation for National and Community Service that works with local, state and national service programs to recruit people for community service. Southern Miss has an AmeriCorps program, Campus Link, which is housed in its Center for Community and Civic Engagement, formerly the Office of Community Service Learning.
Campus Link places members in public schools and after school programs from Jackson to the coast who work directly with students to prepare them for high school. Many of them are Southern Miss students who earn scholarships for their service.
Josh Duplantis, director of the Center for Community and Civic Engagement, said Koch's story is a great example of how AmeriCorps channels the nation's generosity into results that matter.
"I salute her contribution and know she'll inspire others to help not only those across the country affected by recent natural disasters, but people in their own community who need their assistance for other causes," he said.