In 2005, Mississippi was ranked last in an annual “Most Livable States” study for the seventh year in a row. According to the Morgan Quitno Press, the study is based on forty-four factors ranging from infant mortality rate to per capita income—which was $26,650 at the last U.S. Census Bureau estimate, and that was when times were good. It’s no wonder the Mississippi state patron saint is Our Lady of Sorrows.
“I know Mississippi is ranked last in a lot of things. But there are a lot of us who are workin’ hard to change things,” said Ms. Rebecca Endt, who teaches world history and psychology and coaches volleyball and softball at Gautier High School. “Workin’ hard” was an understatement.
I had the opportunity to visit Gautier High School. Myrick Nicks and Anthony Herbert are the assistant vice principals. They, along with Principal Bernard Rogers, the rest of the administrative staff, and the teachers, are committed to educate and mentor the young adults who will ultimately lead Mississippi out of last place. Almost six months after the storm, they had not been given additional financial or material resources to cope with the added stress of the storm. They were making up the difference out of their own pockets.
When I met Principal Rogers, he had just come from buying some school uniforms for his students on his lunch break. Myrick and Shantrell also shopped in the evenings and weekends in order to clothe the needy students.
Myrick always kept a positive attitude, but I could see that he was worried about his students. Ellen asked Myrick one night as we were sitting around talking, “What do you do when you see your high school kids living in these horrible situations?” She was referring to pre- and post-Katrina. “Don’t you just want to save every one of them?”
“Yes, I do. But after a while, you realize that as much as you want to, you can’t really do that. The best thing we can do is to create a great environment for them while they are at school. We do the best we can in the time we have with them,” Myrick replied.
His teachers and staff are equally committed. Ms. Anita Lawrence, who teaches special education, informed Anthony that one of her students was still sleeping on a wet mattress from the storm. His family had somehow been overlooked for assistance. Anthony asked the teacher to collect a list of needs and within a few hours, she had gone to the home and completed a list that was as all-encompassing as any I had seen. The family did not have pillows, blankets, towels, underwear, shoes, pants, or toilet paper. They only had the love of a teacher who valued their child as though he was her own.
Shantrell and I delivered the supplies to Ms. Lawrence’s classroom after I returned from President Bush’s visit. I admired her courage. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have to look into the eyes of those students every day and know that they lack the most basic of human needs.
Some of the teachers I met were sharing their land so that other staff members would have a place to put their tents or trailers.
I watched as Anthony and Myrick patrolled the halls between classes. “This is a quiet zone, Gators. Quiet in the halls.” Shantrell joked that it was like boot camp. Personal responsibility and respect for oneself and others were the foundations of learning and teaching.
No one would know by looking at these students, teachers, or staff members that many of them no longer had homes, that they were taking their only shower for the day in the school gym, or that they had no money to repair their homes. They smiled and joked about their situations and spoke of their community with love and pride. They were focused on the future.
Hurricane Katrina is the worst natural disaster in American history. As Myrick once said, “It’s like we were a bunch of ants on our ant hill living life, doing what ants do and then all of a sudden someone comes along and kicks our hill way up in the air and destroys our whole world.”
Myrick, Shantrell, Rev. Rosemary, Rev. Theodore, Anthony, Sonya, and the hundreds of other people I have met in the Gulf Coast understand that if they do not take responsibility for rebuilding, it will not be rebuilt. Their community will be lost. They will continue to do their part. But they also understand that there will be no community, no businesses, and no jobs without homes. Homes cannot be rebuilt or repaired without money in the form of loans and/or grants.
Our commitment to Katrina’s survivors must outlive the length of time she remains in the headlines or we will create a social crisis of homelessness and unemployment that will last for decades. Individually and collectively, we will reap what we sow.
The people of the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and those who have come to their aid have shown me that the human spirit, powered by the force of love, soars above bureaucracy, neglect, and injustice. Katrina transformed my view of life, forcing me to view destruction and loss through the lens of love. It is through the eye of the storm that I can clearly see the power of God’s love manifested in the charity, service, and sacrifice of the weak, weary, and worn. The storm has cleared a path for hope that can only survive if we are faithful to our fellow brothers and sisters in their hour of need. Christ said in Matthew 7:24, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.”