2008-04-03 / Front Page

Teens rally for renewal effort in Mississippi

By Michaela Kennedy

Allison Rooney, left, Jacqueline Weixel and Jordana De La Cruz went to Hattiesburg, Miss. to build a home for Habitat for Humanity with the Rocky Hill School Katrina relief team. Allison Rooney, left, Jacqueline Weixel and Jordana De La Cruz went to Hattiesburg, Miss. to build a home for Habitat for Humanity with the Rocky Hill School Katrina relief team. Last month, two young Jamestown residents, Jacqueline Weixel and Philip Twombly, spent a week with classmates in storm-ravaged Hattiesburg, Miss. The high school students saw firsthand how devastation from Hurricane Katrina still affects lives in the South.

Weixel and Twombly joined a dozen other students from Rocky Hill School to help reconstruction efforts by Habitat for Humanity, a non-profit housing ministry.

The teen volunteers flew to Mississippi the week of March 17. Weixel, a senior at the private school in East Greenwich, returned to help for the second year in a row. When they landed in Hattiesburg, a slab of concrete on the ground greeted them. "People went into it not knowing what to expect," Weixel said about the service trip. "We started out with a foundation. A week later we had built a house."

Twombly, a junior, joined the volunteer operation for the first time. He expressed amazement at the region upon arrival. "I thought, wow, there's nothing here. Everything is dead," he said. Already having some background in construction through his older brother, Twombly was ready to roll up his sleeves.

Weixel found this year's trip to be easier her second time around. She expressed pleasure in seeing families living in the homes she helped build in the area the previous year. Weixel helped teachers with the new volunteers, and offered advice when needed. "Some people did a lot of joking," she admitted. A few of the young volunteers showed little care about the quality of their work in the beginning, and refused to fix mistakes they made, she said. They protested that the house was not for them and they didn't care.

"That's the whole reason why we're here," Weixel remembered telling the young helpers. She reminded the workers about the motto of Rocky Hill School, "Know thyself." With encouragement, the attitudes got better as the week progressed, she added.

The goodwill gesture of the teenagers involved more than just a week off from school for the experience. Preparation started months in advance. The school contributed to their expenses, but the students put many hours into fund-raising as well. They sold snacks at school and sports events to raise money, and asked various organizations for contributions, Weixel said.

The first group of Rocky Hill students to help the Habitat movement participated two years ago. Weixel heard feedback from students that went on the initial trip, and knew then she wanted to participate as soon as she was old enough. "I really enjoy helping people," she said.

While they visited and worked in Hattiesburg, the Rocky Hill students realized they were the only high school students participating in the call for help. Other groups of benevolent ambassadors came from colleges and universities around the country.

When asked to reveal any problems or obstacles they experienced during the week, the volunteers shrugged. "We had great weather and no problems," Twombly said. "Except for the Farmers' Market we visited. It was deep-fried everything."

The two islanders worked hard, but agreed the experience was rewarding. They learned how to build a house, and experienced gratitude from the homeowners. Weixel wrote about her experience in essays for college applications.

Twombly plans to draw on the experience for a summer job in construction. A smile spread across his face as Twombly reflected on the week down south. "I've got the feeling that we did a lot," he said. "It was smooth sailing."

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