FAIRFIELD — Logan Cook remembers his last service trip to Mississippi, where he and a group of Sacred Heart University volunteers worked last winter in an area ravaged in 2004 by Hurricane Katrina.
“It’s really shocking to see even after 10 years, people are still devastated and still trying to get their houses together,” said Cook, now a senior at the university. “The moment that really affected me the most, though — we went down to the 9th Ward, where the levees broke in New Orleans, on our last day and you still see houses that people have not come back to. They’re still boarded up.”
It was an eye-opening experience for Cook, who has volunteered regularly since high school, working in soup kitchens and clothing drives, but to that point had never seen the aftermath of a natural disaster. It was not an experience, however, that deterred him from future aid work — instead having the opposite effect.
This winter, from Jan. 6 through 13, Cook will be one of 15 SHU students and three staff members embarking on a weeklong service trip to Port Arthur and Beaumont, Texas, two cities in the Houston metropolitan area hard hit by Hurricane Harvey this summer.
Cook, along with senior Sean Whelan and sophomore Cassie Simonides, is a student service trip leader, working with the schools’ office of Volunteer Programs and Service Learning (VPSL). Every year, VPSL sends a group of students on a service trip during the school’s winter vacation. Since 2004, every group had gone to Mississippi. But after Harvey hit, Cook, Simonides, Whelan and VPSL staff decided to break from tradition.
“I spoke to the mayor of Port Arthur. I spoke with the mayor of Beaumont, and she said, ‘We’re basically not on the map,’” said Karreem Mebame, director of VPSL. “People don’t know where Port Arthur is. But both cities were absolutely ravaged and destroyed. They need us now.”
“It’s kind of an adventure. We’ve never been to this area, we don’t know what kind of work we’ll be doing, but we’re going to go down and put our best foot forward,” Whelan said.
According to Whelan, the day-to-day activities of the students is still unclear but could include cleaning out water-damaged homes, putting up drywall, or any other repair work needed. The group will be working with Community Collaborations International, an organization that encourages alternative breaks — a counter to “traditional” spring break trips — and provides housing and logistical support.
Simonides, like Cook, has extensive volunteer experience. Before coming to SHU, she had been on eight different mission trips. Whelan has been doing service work since he was 14 and was with Cook and SHU volunteers last year in Mississippi.
Thought he is optimistic about the group of volunteers — which will be one of the first college groups to visit the area — and their abilities, Whelan is under no illusions about the scope of the damage they will face.
“One week of college students in Houston is not going to fix the issues down there. We could spend an entire year down there and it wouldn’t take care of all the devastation, all the homelessness,” he said. “But because there’s so much that I can’t do, it makes it more important for me to do everything that I can.”
Part of the job of Cook, Simonides and Whelan is to prepare the corp of volunteers for the destruction they’ll see and, once in Texas, help them to process the highs and, especially, the lows with daily group reflections.
Thinking back to that first trip to Mississippi, Cook remembers that, though the lows were profound and more work needed to be done, some progress had been made, some neighborhoods had been rebuilt, and a sense of stubborn optimism lingered.
“It’s good to see that people do make it back,” Cook said. “At least some part can be restored back to what it used to be.”