Feb. 2, 2005 • Volume 14 Number 10

Debris from the 2004 tsunami still litters many of the beaches on India's east coast.

In Service to the World's Community

Members of the Boston College community gave of their time, energy, skill and faith during the recent semester break on service trips to, among other places, two areas devastated by natural disasters: the Tamil Nadu region of India, which was hit by the 2004 tsunami, and the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. Chronicle invited service trip participants to share their observations and thoughts on these experiences.

The devastation wreaked by the tsunami was as I thought it would be. What was impossible to imagine before arriving in Tharangampadi was the extent of disruption to people's lives. Everyone in the fishing villages we visited had lost something in this disaster: a child, a parent, all their possessions, their home, their boat and net, or their livelihood. Many of the fishermen we interviewed were terrified of returning to the sea, and every morning they had no choice but to put their boats into the water. If they didn't fish, their families ate only rice that day.

When we first entered villages I was doubtful about our usefulness. There were times when we felt like voyeurs, toting our cameras and notebooks and asking prying questions. But in time we learned that when a whole village has suffered some terrible personal loss, individuals have no one to turn to who can listen to their story who hasn't also suffered loss. Surprisingly, villagers were willing to tell us their story, I think because they sensed we came to witness their grief. There were several people who thanked us for listening, and said that after talking they felt as though their "burden has been lifted."

The one person burned into my memory is a woman in a fishing village who approached us while we were interviewing someone else. She requested the interpreter to ask us if there were any babies in America for her. She was reluctant to speak to us at first, but then consented. The interpreter asked her why she asked us for a baby and she told us that she lost all four of her children in the tsunami. She is no longer able to conceive any more children and she and her husband have been unsuccessful in their attempts to legally adopt a child orphaned by the disaster.

I am the mother of two children and the thought of losing either of them is, as for most parents, absolutely unthinkable. We sat in stunned silence as this woman talked. I thought, this is as bad as it gets, right here, right now. All the best graduate schooling, all the studying, field practice, role plays, and supervision could not prepare me for a situation like this. There were no words of comfort we could offer this woman.

I wanted to follow through on the idea of adoption, and had an opportunity later in our trip to interview a Catholic nun whose order is caring for 800 orphans, many of them tsunami-related. When I told her the story of this woman and her desire to adopt, the nun sadly shook her head and said that adoption is not really an option among the villagers. Indian culture does not sanction removing a child from her family, even if the only remaining family members are distantly related and she must be institutionalized.

Every day in India we were overwhelmed by what we learned at our site visits. At one point I realized that the tsunami was just another difficulty that these people had to endure. Issues such as bonded child labor, sex trafficking, domestic violence, caste discrimination, gender inequality, government corruption, overpopulation, illiteracy, extreme poverty and religious conflict were some of the other themes that kept cropping up in discussions with NGO representatives and the Jesuit community as obstacles to providing needed relief.

It is easy to feel helpless in the face of such systemic problems, but we were constantly inspired by individuals who worked on a macro level to bring about change as well as those who helped one individual at a time, such as giving an impoverished woman a sewing machine and teaching her how to sew.

-Laura Dunne, Graduate School of Social Work


It's been nearly two weeks since we've returned from Biloxi and I find myself going back to the places where I worked, the people with whom I talked, worked, and ate meals, and the emotions that I felt during the week I was in Mississippi. Images in my head return as I listen to professors during lectures, converse with friends, or do my homework. I think to myself, "I wonder what Mr. James is doing right now?" or "How is Ms. Jennie coping with the day-to-day life of Tent City in Pass Christian, Miss.?"

Before we departed on Jan. 13, the organization through which we volunteered, Hands On USA, warned us about "re-entry" into our former lives, normal American society. I remember thinking to myself, "Are these people serious?" I refused to believe that I was somehow traumatized during my week in Biloxi, yet that is where I find myself now. Old concerns now seem trivial.

Contrary to what politicians or the media may portray, the Gulf Coast remains overwhelmed, yet not by waters nor by wind, but by debris, hopelessness, despair, and suffering. Yet amidst all of this for me was a realization of the beauty and profundity of the Jesuit maxim "Men and women for others." For a week, that is who we were - my fellow Presidential Scholars and members of the greater BC community.

I don't mean to romanticize our trip, but we were the arms, legs, eyes, and ears to and for those in need. Every day we awoke for humble service and every day we returned dirty and exhausted, and still never before had I felt so uplifted and alive.

-Matthew Hamilton '09

Biloxi looked like a war zone. It seems to me that the media coverage has dwindled since time has gone on, so many people may not know how much work still needs to be done to fully recover from the disaster. I went into it thinking I wanted to help, but I really didn't know how much help was still needed and how much work still needed to be done even months later to clean up the remnants of the storm's destruction.

The greatest experience I had was helping a husband and wife, Felix and Jill, clean up their yard. Their house was condemned and already removed, and they currently live in a trailer. Rubble, bricks, pipes, branches covered the foundations, and we helped to clear out the land they hope to some day build upon, where their house formerly stood.

When the storm hit, they got into a canoe along with some of their neighbors. Jill had won this canoe in a raffle. Felix told me that when the water was at its highest, he looked out of the canoe and saw only the very tops of houses, as they battled 10-foot swells up among the power lines. It was truly an amazing story.

Before retiring, Felix was one of the best chefs in Mississippi, and we mentioned to him that we were going to volunteer as a group to cook dinner one night for all the volunteers staying at the Hands On USA facility. We asked if he would like to help us cook, and he was thrilled to get back in the kitchen. He had some food shipped in from Dallas, some of which was donated, and we spent an entire morning and afternoon preparing the meal for that night's dinner.

Felix told me that he loved getting the chance to do his work again, and he wanted to help us prepare a great meal because we helped him at his home. We got to know these two great people and helped them push forward their own rebuilding process, and we also had the opportunity to cook with the renowned Chef Felix.

-William Markis '07

Every day when we returned from wherever we had been working we would drive along the coast at sunset, and the stark contrast between the beauty of the calm ocean with the utter destruction of the coastal areas was heartbreaking.

On Sunday we had the opportunity to attend the first Mass being celebrated at a newly reopened parish. Everyone was all dressed up and we were in our work clothes with our Hands On USA sweatshirts, but they were all so grateful that we were there. One woman even invited us for brunch at the reception afterwards. The energy and thankfulness of that community was incredibly powerful.

-Robert Kubala '09

I am working on my master's degree while teaching second grade in Pascagoula, Miss. My school, St. Peter the Apostle, was destroyed in the hurricane. Fortunately, I was able to visit Boston College after the storm to do some fund-raising. We put together a service trip for 75 BC volunteers to Pascagoula, to help 20 local families.

The kids did an amazing job. They came down with the energy to revitalize the entire Gulf Coast region. They worked hard all week long and made great strides with the people down here. They did everything from emptying out buildings that hadn't been touched since the storm to painting the entire interior of a home that had been flooded as a result of Katrina. They even tore down an entire house for a family so that the process of rebuilding can take place that much sooner.

After witnessing this trip, these kids, their work ethic and spirit, I felt great pride for Boston College. I feel BC challenges us to truly be attentive to the need in the world and then supports us in a way that we are able to use our gifts to serve. It was an honor to witness the willingness of these students to help. They worked their bodies hard day after day and their energy and enthusiasm never dwindled. In fact, it brought great hope to the community down here.

I am not at all surprised by the amount of work they got done or the energy they brought with them, because that's what BC students are. They are determined to get things done and did so with loving hearts.

To me, as a BC alumnus, it was amazing to cross paths with the world of undergraduates, where I had been not many months before. It shows that there is a connection that does not sever by walking across a stage with a piece of paper in your hand.

-Elizabeth Stowe, Class of 2005

top of page