Rev. David Calhoun has led mission trips for 18 years. He took groups to Jamaica, Mexico, the slums of England and to inner city Boston, and none of them, he said, can compare to the devastation he saw while leading his latest trip.

Calhoun’s youth group from the West Scarborough United Methodist Church recently spent a week in Van Cleave, Miss., where it helped rebuild homes damaged during Hurricane Katrina. The group returned to Scarborough Saturday.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Calhoun. “I’ve seen poverty and people in despair, but as far as devastation goes, I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. It was like a war zone.”

He described piles of debris, not like the ones left at construction sites, but huge mountains that were once homes and buildings and are now scattered across the landscape by wind and water.

Large bridges, necessary for easy and direct travel, remained in cracked segments half submerged in the ocean. Almost a year after the storm, the houses left standing by the storm use tarps for roofs while others are missing entire walls.

A centuries-old graveyard the group visited is now missing many caskets that were carried out to sea. Headstones lie cracked and uprooted.

Mississippi families showed them pictures taken from upper stories of 60 foot walls of water rushing in to effortlessly sweep out houses, hotels and anything else in their paths.

But, said Calhoun, that doesn’t even begin to explain what they saw. Not only was it overwhelming and hard to put into words, he said, but most people just don’t have a frame of reference to help them picture what his group saw.

“Honestly, I’m still processing,” said Calhoun. “It’s just staggering.”

Kimberly Dean, a 19-year-old who went with the group, also finds it difficult to describe what she experienced. “It was such a good trip, but it’s hard for me to get into words how I feel about all of it,” she said.

‘Tears in their eyes’

What stunned Calhoun and the group as much as the devastation was the fact that after 10 months there was so little repaired.

“It’s really baffling to me that almost a year later practically nothing has been done,” said Calhoun. “It was really disheartening to go down and see how little has been done for Mississippi.”

“Mississippi is the forgotten place,” he added.

Even though they just returned Saturday, Calhoun has begun to plan and inspire more relief efforts for Mississippi. He hopes to lead an adult mission in the spring and another youth mission sometime next year. He has also spoken with members of the church to encourage other Methodist groups to head to Mississippi.

According to Calhoun, the United Methodist Committee on Relief supplies and organizes all the groups around the nation and world. The committe is still helping with tsunami relief in the hardest hit parts of the world and have been in the south since the hurricane hit.

“We’re the first ones in and the last ones to leave,” said Calhoun. “There’s no red tape.”

When Calhoun’s youth group arrived in Van Cleave, there were five others, and more due to arrive to pick up where his group left off. The majority of workers Calhoun saw were from faith-based groups. The family they were helping, Carolyn and Lester Wells, waited 10 months for a FEMA trailer. One week after contacting the Methodist Committee on Relief, someone was there appraising the damage to their house.

“They told me they had just about given up hope before we arrived,” said Calhoun. “When we got there, they had tears in their eyes.”

For a week the group ripped out moldy walls, hauled in new ones and dry walled almost all of the rooms. Another group will soon pick up where they left off, finishing what they started until the house is repaired.

Southern hospitality

Though the youth group came to Mississippi to give something to the Wells family, they came home to Maine feeling equally as moved.

“We left feeling that they had made our lives better when we went there to make their lives better,” said 18-year-old Bonnie Mincher, who is soon moving down south to Georgia to go to school.

“Everyone there was just so thankful,” said Dean. “They really gave me more than I gave them.”

Nearly everywhere they went, said Dean, people would find out who they were and come up, one by one, to thank them just for coming. On both of their flights the pilot announced that there was a youth relief group from Maine on board and everyone clapped.

“That was really nice,” said Dean.

For Mincher’s sister, 16-year-old Anna Mincher, she came home with a new love – the South.

“Southern hospitality is so great,” she said. “I love the South now. I’m jealous now that Bonnie gets to move there.”

They talked about huge dinners, night after night, with cobbler for dessert, and breakfasts complete with grits and bacon. “We ate like kings down there,” said Calhoun.

The accommodations were a little rustic, two outdoor showers for 50 people and mattresses crammed into rows on the floor, but their southern hosts made them feel at home by plying them with comfort food.

Despite the hard living conditions, hot, dusty work and endless accounts of tragedy, they had fun and came back changed people, said Calhoun.

“You just can’t help coming back a different person,” he said. “You’d have to have ice in your veins not to be moved by it all.”

This bridge in Biloxi, Miss., was cracked into pieces that still lie half submerged almost a year after the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. The West Scarborough United Methodist Church Youth group lived in the Van Cleave church for the week while they repaired homes in Mississippi. They shared two outdoor showers with 50 people and slept on the floor.A pile of debris left by Hurricane KatrinaThe youth group paused at a Biloxi graveyard that was almost destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Many of the caskets were washed out to sea, and most of the gravestones are cracked and scattered around the area. Photo courtesy of Kimberly DeanGroup supervisors Arthur Chase, left, and Rev. David Calhoun measure some drywall. Behind them, from left, Kim Dean, Chloe Cekada, supervisor Laurie Carlson and Bonnie Mincher show their strength. Photo courtesy of Kimberly DeanThe group members slept on the floor of the church. Since there were other groups staying at the church they put as many people in a room as possible. Photo courtesy of Kimberly DeanOn the way to Van Cleave, the youth group stopped in Biloxi, Miss. to look at what was once a park, but is now left in ruins. Photo courtesy of Kimberly DeanKimberly Dean, left, Chloe Cekada, Anna Mincher and Bonnie Mincher take a break from installing drywall.From left, Bonnie Mincher, Kimberly Dean, and Chloe Cekada spent their week in Van Cleave, Miss., putting up dry wall and repairing the ceiling.This sign painted onto a Biloxi, Miss., hotel was one of many the group saw on their two hour drive through the state to Van Cleave. The youth group stopped at this abandoned hotel in Biloxi, Miss., on their way to Van Cleave. Photo courtesy of Kimberly Dean

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