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Bringing back Biloxi

Students and staff travel to Gulf Coast city to provide disaster relief

The day after fall term exams ended, a group of Dartmouth students and staff departed for a much-anticipated journey. But instead of going home for winter break, they headed for Biloxi, Miss., where they're lending a hand as the city works to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. The two-week service trip in December, and a subsequent trip in the spring, are being funded by the College.

The wreck of a casino barge
The wreck of a casino barge, washed onto a Biloxi, Miss., beach by Hurricane Katrina. (photo by Nick Taranto '06)

Stuart Lord, Virginia Rice Kelsey '61S Dean of the Tucker Foundation, and Nick Taranto '06 traveled to Biloxi in October to identify the city's needs and explore the possibility of building a lasting relationship between Biloxi and Dartmouth. The goal is to make a two-year commitment of three service trips per year.

Lord and Taranto met with education and city officials, disaster relief coordinators and spiritual leaders. "In listening to local community leaders, we attempted to match their needs with our resources," said Lord. The plan developed for the service trip focused on five areas: a documentary about housing advocacy, oral histories, art for schoolchildren, resumé-writing assistance and demolition/construction.

The group will be working with HandsOn USA, a relief organization providing Gulf Coast residents help with houses that need to be demolished and debris that needs to be cleared. HandsOn USA identifies demolition and construction needs on an ongoing basis.

"It's important to be flexible. We expect to use each trip as an opportunity to construct the next," said Lord. "Biloxi's needs are changing daily, so the projects will need to change in response."

"A lot of people just want to talk about their experience," noted Taranto. "That's why we thought an oral history program would be helpful." Resumé and career assistance are critical since many Biloxi residents were left unemployed by the storm.

Nick Taranto '06, Linda Kennedy and Stuart Lord
Left to right: Nick Taranto '06, Linda Kennedy and Stuart Lord planning this month's service trip to Biloxi, Miss. (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

The Biloxi trip was developed by the Dartmouth Emergency Response Group, which created five "Katrina Help" committees, run primarily by students, to lead the response to the hurricanes. "There has been an overwhelming sense of support from the College itself, faculty, staff and students who have assisted with fundraising, donations, service, education and communication. Katrina Help has a network of over 800 people," said Lord.

"There are a lot of people at Dartmouth who are willing to contribute and help when you have a goal in mind that benefits others," agreed Taranto, who is working on a senior fellowship titled "Without a Net: Displaced People in the Twentieth Century." Taranto cited a 2004 trip to the mountains of Peru, where he photographed local residents, as the experience that sparked his commitment to service. "I realized that idealism and self-interest could be synthesized by translating personal experiences into concrete social action," he said.

Thirty-six students, accompanied by nine staff advisors, signed on. "The staff advisors come from all across the College," said Linda Kennedy, Trip Leader and Director of Student Activities.

Participants paid a nominal fee of $150 toward the cost of travel, while the College funded the bulk of the expenses with a $50,000 commitment - $25,000 towards each of the first two trips. Student Assembly contributed another $7,000, which will subsidize the cost of food and fund the documentary film.

By SARAH BENELLI

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Last Updated: 5/30/08