Grounded in Maine – Connected to the World. Or, at least to Slidell, Louisiana where a group of students and adults from both the Kents Hill School and the Readfield United Methodist Church communities are participating in the March break Mission Trip – a service learning trip that began in 2005 and has been running almost non-stop ever since. This is the 16th year that the group has been on the Gulf Coast. Once again, they are partnering with the Epworth Project, a faith-based organization originally founded with the assistance of the United Methodist Church, to continue recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina. We are happy to share thoughts from trip leaders and student participants.
Day 1 – Arrival, March 5th
Jeff Munson reporting:
It is 79 degrees and sunny right now in Slidell, Louisiana. Two days ago, I was scraping ice and snow off of my windshield driving out of New England. Today, I’m scraping bugs having arrived at the Epworth project after a fairly non-eventful and relaxing road trip south. Cat Gibbs ’19 had just driven over from her senior year at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa to join the team for the week, and the other 23 members of the team are in various stages of arriving at Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans and making the hour-long drive across Lake Pontchartrain to the Epworth Project, our home for the week. This is the biggest team we have brought down in many years, and I am excited about what we can do.
What do we do, you ask? Here is the short and oft-repeated version of how we got here: When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on August 29th, 2005 the devastation was unprecedented and the Readfield United Methodist Church and KHS put together a joint team to come aid the disaster recovery effort. Slidell was where we were assigned to by the folks coordinating disaster relief services down here. We arrived the following March and were part of a huge initial group that formed what became in future years The Epworth Project. With the exception of three years in Mississippi, we have returned every year we could to help perform home repairs for myriad reasons. This is year 16, and on the way down, I was already thinking about year 17.
We have many new volunteers this year, but also many who have been with us before – I’m thinking about a 50-50 mix and I hope to have as many of those voices participate in the blog as we send pictures and tell stories about this trip. It took a lot of effort from a lot of people to get us here, and I will spend some time passing a little gratitude around as the week progresses. My first shout-out will be to G.G. M. ’26 and Ashley C. ’25 who designed our t-shirts this year. The photo is of G.G.’s front pocket design.
Cat Gibbs ’19 - Today I arrived in Louisiana after a 3-hour ride from Tuscaloosa, AL, which I have called home since I graduated from Kents Hill School. After graduating, I studied Public Relations and Communication Studies at The University of Alabama. My two-year mission trip experience with KHS partially led me to move south for college.
I remember sitting down in this same room my senior year of high school to write a blog post, and here I am, a senior in college, about to start a Master's degree (gulp)! I am excited to continue working with the Epworth Project and Kents Hill School. Throughout college, life has been hectic for me; keeping up with classes, joining a sorority, holding executive positions in clubs, studying abroad, and more. Being able to do mission work is something I only had a little time to do during college, so a lot of it was around the Tuscaloosa community. Back in Slidell, I am ready to build community, hear stories, and fix something.
I have fond memories from my previous mission trips in Slidell, where I learned how to build staircases, hang drywall, and reshingle a roof (still a nerve-wracking thought). I look forward to reminiscing on past trips and creating more memories with this year's great group. I've got my work boots ready and am optimistic about how this week will go. See you on the other side!
Day 2 – Mondays are Hard
Jeff Munson reporting:
Monday morning seems to come earlier in Louisiana, which is, of course, a ridiculous notion, but Mondays are hard. We have no idea what to expect, our routine hasn’t been established, and everyone is still a little travel-weary. We started the day with an amazing talk by Jim Fatic, the Executive Director of the Epworth Project and we all learned a lot about the mission of the organization and about living in poverty. We have known Jim since he started here and it is always a blessing to listen to his insights.
Our team is split into two pretty large groups this year. One team is in Slidell working to replace severely rotted stairs leading up to a house that is 11 feet up on stilts. It turned out that the rot on the stairs was worse than we knew; at one point a member of the family came down the stairs and a large portion of the unit collapsed. He did not fall, but we know this wasn’t going to be a simple replacement. We were doing a full demo and starting from scratch.
The other team is in the nearby town of Lacombe and was sent to replace a kitchen floor. As they removed the old floor, they realized that much of the floor system had severe termite damage and most of the floor support structure was, in fact, gone. So tomorrow they will need to support what remains, jack up the house, put in a new main support beam, and re-build the joist system before getting back to the original task of installing a new floor. It was a really long day trying to figure out how to move forward safely with this project. Tonight, we did a lot of brainstorming and we think we have plans. Tomorrow will tell.
Lena O. ’23 - Anyone who has even been anywhere near me in the morning can tell you that I am not a morning person. Especially when it is 7 a.m. on the first Monday of my break, however, even though I had a scowl on my face when my eyes were first attacked by the overhead light, I was in fact not upset at all. For my last year at Kents Hill, I decided that I wanted to participate in the mission trip that I was too young to go on for my freshman year, and was unable to my sophomore and junior years. I decided to come because I knew it was a great opportunity for me to reach out to those outside of a community I am familiar with and make a difference. Though I have memories of hurricanes from my childhood, my experience is nowhere near what I have seen and heard just from the first day of this trip. So far, this trip has not only given me an opportunity to safely “play” around with power tools but also shown me how important it is to reach out and show others that they are cared for. Even though repairing houses and making sure that we leave our homeowners in conditions much better than we found them is important, it is also extremely important to leave them knowing that they are cared for and have a community in which they make an impact.
Rose J.’23 - Before our mission team got to know our worksites and tasks for the week, we got to listen to an extremely impactful and eye-opening speech by Jim Fatic, the director of the Epworth Project. Through telling some incredible stories about various homeowners, a point Jim made that really stood out to me was how the way one interprets the word “poverty” is heavily dependent on their circumstances. While most look at poverty as not having enough resources to make ends meet, the emotional and psychological sides of being in poverty are often forgotten. Feelings of hopelessness, anger, and fear often arise when those living in poverty feel like they are not being listened to and are being overlooked. I did not decide to go on this mission trip ultimately to fix houses – I decided to go on this trip (for my second time) in order to continue building connections with people and to continue hearing amazing stories from them. Our number one priority as a mission team is to love people and show that we care, which is something I find so fulfilling and powerful.
Aidan B. ’23 - Since I am on my second mission trip, I have seen plenty of examples of poverty and its effects on the people subjected to it. However, I never gave a ton of thought to how their children and grandchildren see it. I got some insight into that today, as when we were doing the demo work and preparing to repair our house of the week, we got to meet the homeowner’s granddaughter. A very bright and energetic little girl, she was not shy and kept the entire crew engaged with little stories and interactions that put smiles on everybody’s faces. I’m not sure to what extent she understood the idea of poverty or the Epworth Project’s status as a charity, but I could tell that whatever she thought we were, she was doing her best to be friendly. I suppose the main reason I am still turning over our little interactions in my head is the simplicity of it all. To this little girl, the ideas of poverty, Hurricane Katrina, charity, and volunteer labor are naught more than broad, blurry concepts. What she knew was that there are a bunch of big, nice teenagers in her grandma’s house, so she might as well be hospitable. Oh, and that one team leader with the glasses and the big white beard? He’s definitely Santa Claus in disguise.
Tuesday, March 7th
Jeff Munson reporting:
Our two jobs continue to make progress and I’ll pass along a job update on the actual work tomorrow. This evening, we celebrated Ava N. ’23 18th birthday with an abbreviated reflection period and a team trip to Smoothie King. Personal reflections are provided by RJ Jenkins, Jonah J. ’25, and Naomi M. ’23.
RJ Jenkins (Faculty) – Slidell, Louisiana, and its residents are a blessing. On my first jaunt to the bayou state, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew my wife, kids and I were heading down south to a new place to help some folks who’d had some tough circumstances come their way. I knew we’d be working and living alongside our KHS and RUMC teammates. And I knew we’d get a taste of some Cajun cuisine. But after two days, I tasted some delicious jambalaya courtesy of Ms. Andrea (everything is so delicious!), soaked up some rays while our Maine counterparts are still shoveling out from the storm, and took part in various construction tasks as we rebuild some staircases in real disrepair for our thankful homeowner, what I’ve experienced goes far beyond. There is a real need here certainly, a need to help rebuild homes, but more so a need for the people here we are helping to feel wanted, connected to the world, and valued. You can hear in their voices and see in their faces that they’ve been told before that help was coming…but it never arrived. How is it that 17 years after Katrina there are still people waiting for someone to step up? At this point, they’re skeptical, as they deserve to be.
Pounding nails, cutting boards, repairing homes - it helps to repair the hope and trust of these people longing to be seen and heard. But I’ve discovered that it’s listening and paying attention to them that is the most important thing we do (after being told ahead of time by the veterans on the trip that this is indeed the case). These people are longing for what we all long for, human connection. Sharing a moment with them just through listening to their stories…. it’s what really matters. Years from now I won’t remember exactly what the job site was like, perhaps that we rebuilt some staircases in the warm, humid air, but I will remember listening to our homeowner - the loss of her husband after Katrina, the challenges of rebuilding a home and a life, how she is still dealing with loss, and what it meant for her to see us arrive and be present to her needs. In this giving of our time, we have actually received much more. We have a purpose here that makes us all feel capable of so much by doing so little: showing up, listening, and being present. I came expecting to give but I feel I have received more in return than I could have expected. We came to be a blessing but we have been blessed.
Jonah J. ’25 - So far, I have enjoyed the mission trip. My project is working on rebuilding the front and rear stairs of a home that is raised 11 feet off the ground. One of the Epworth supervisors, Mr. Tom, has been a great help, making difficult decisions, running the equipment, and teaching us valuable skills. This has all been his choice. As a team, we have been very productive, taking down two staircases, each including platforms and spanning two stories. We also rebuilt just over 75% of what we took down, all of this happening in two days. We only need to build half of a staircase and make some minor adjustments before the project is over. The family was entering the house via a ladder and climbing over a railing, which is very unsafe, so this has been a great help to them. The homeowner lost her husband in a tragic accident after Hurricane Katrina, so this means a lot to her. As far as my personal experience, I enjoy using power tools and working with wood. However, I will admit that waiting around for the next job is not the most exciting part of the process, but at the same time, it gives us breaks to rest. Additionally, Ms. Andrea’s cooking is delectable, potentially a reason for volunteers to come down to Slidell. I never knew that beans and rice could be so incredible. Overall, this is a great experience, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has a good work ethic and does not mind getting their hands dirty.
Naomi M. ’23 – This is my first time on the mission trip, and each day provides me with something new. Today it was the idea that just because you have one task to do, does not mean that is all you should do. My group's main adventure was to replace the floor in the kitchen but as the day went along I realized it's more valuable to not be hyper-focused on just one task. While I had my turn between the floor joists of the kitchen, about half of our group filled their time outside by cleaning up the bricks in the pathway, raking the leaves, and picking up trash. I was reminded today that we are not here just to fix a house. We are not here just to fix what looks to be broken. We are here to make somebody else’s life a little bit easier and help put a smile on their face along the way.
Wednesday, March 8th – One step forward…
Jeff Munson reporting:
The week always flows with a rhythm that has become predictable over the years. A certain drudgery hits on Wednesday – the jobs seem to be taking forever with unexpected obstacles and folks are legitimately tired. It seems like we have been here forever. Yet progress is being made in larger leaps than are apparent at face value. While we are certainly closer to completing our initial projects (all should be done tomorrow barring more what-not), all of the teams made significant progress connecting with homeowners and hearing stories both joyful and gut-wrenching. Some of the stories are shared by Tanner C. ’24), Ava N.’23), and Anne Marie Jenkins P’23, 25
Tanner C. ’24 – Starting off my first day in Slidell, I was immersed in the aftermath of Katrina 18 years later. This is my first trip to Louisiana and it has been eye-opening to the many struggles of life where natural disasters are prevalent. On our first work day, we went to visit a homeowner who needed 2 new staircases built for her platform home. As we made progress on the stairs I started to stray away from the building, working on gardening and landscaping, while also taking breaks to speak with the homeowner and hear her story. When my group and I chose to work in the garden, we could see it brought out a special light in our homeowner, as she shared more and more including her pet turtles. Coming into this trip I was excited, yet I never knew how much it would expand my field of vision. This trip has shown me every story is different, yet everyone has two things in common, God and hope for a better future.
Ava N. ’23 - This week marked my second mission trip in the past two years. I came back, for 2023, and I find myself asking why I came back. Every day, I’m reminded why as I walk step by step through the different stages of each project, and watch our vision become reality. For now, we have been working on removing and eventually replacing a kitchen floor, along with its support beams. As the jobs were filled, more revealed themselves, as we started working not just inside the house but on the homeowners’ lawn. As we did this, the brother and sister owning the home began revealing stories as the house revealed its history in unison. It was beautiful, to say the least, to watch backgrounds unfold in front of us. Yet again, I see why I came back, and I would do it again.
Anne Marie Jenkins P’23, '25– I woke up this morning looking forward to spending more time with the homeowners at our worksite. There are three main objectives for the Gulf Coast Mission Trip – fix something, be in the community, and hear stories. The homeowners are excellent storytellers, and spending time with them has been the most rewarding activity I’ve done on this trip. The Gulf Coast Teams from KHS and RUMC have a tradition. In addition to the main task at hand to repair homes, each sub-team thoughtfully chooses something special to do for the homeowners that is not on the work order. The group working at our assigned home has two sub-teams. One team noticed a plant pot in front of the home covered in moss, dirt, and leaves. Josie H’23 and Ava N’23 went shopping for a scrub brush and a beautiful potted flowering Impatient plant. They scrubbed the pot clean and constructed a brick base. Now the pot sits proudly in front of the home with fresh flowers. One of the homeowners mentioned that the pot was very special since it was around when his father was a young boy. The other homeowner was so happy that it contained living flowers again.
Rose J’23 and Hannah B.’23 from the other sub-team photographed a small yellow church behind the home. The homeowners told us the history of the church. Their parents were wed there, and now it serves as a place for all to enter and pray during the day. It is clearly a source of pride for the family. Rose and Hannah shopped for art supplies today and are creating a colored-pencil drawing for the homeowners.
It’s great to know that homeowners will have a secure and sturdy kitchen floor when we are finished our assignment. My hope is they will feel loved and valued as they gaze upon the flowers and drawing long after we are gone, and that they remember their new friends from Maine.
Thursday, March 9 – Urgent Care Day!
Thursdays are traditionally the day we are most likely to need a trip to Urgent Care. We have been working on our jobs for most of a week and it is easy to get complacent and stop thinking about safety. Add to that the fact that people are just plain tired can be a recipe for a boo-boo. So we spend a little extra time before we head out to the worksites talking about safety. And it worked today! Everyone made it back with the 10 fingers and 10 toes we sent them out with, and we finished all of our jobs including a last-minute stairs replacement on a house we hadn’t been to. A good day.
One of our long-standing traditions has been to leave a “blessing” with each homeowner for the houses we work at. Usually, this consists of finding a large flat surface where we all write a note to the homeowner and sign and date it. This is done with a piece of the house that will be covered up. Subfloors and the back of sheetrock panels are popular. We did this with our homeowners today and also left each of them with some organic Maine-made maple syrup, and some prayer shawls that were provided by the Epworth Center. It was a nice way to say “goodbye” to our new friends. Still working on tomorrow’s plan for the last day on new work sites.
Hannah B.’23 - Over the past week I have really gotten to know the homeowners that we are helping out, and I got a real feel of the community through their stories and smiles. While running tools back and forth through the house to get everyone the equipment they needed, I noticed something really special. The homeowner, Ms. Ena was smiling at her brother, Mr. Denis, with what I thought were tears in her eyes. A smile on her face and tears in her eyes as our team was working hard in the heat to fix up her home. She later shared with us that the home had been in her house for generations, and wasn’t only her childhood house, but now her grandchildren’s “grandmama’s house”. We were fixing up a floor that held so many memories, in a room that shared so many smiles. Going back to the moment of the homeowner with her brother, something sharp suddenly came into focus. On the first day of this trip, I was excited to hang out with my friends and have fun experiences away from home. But after really understanding what Ms. Ena and Mr. Dennis went through in their lives and how much our presence there meant to them, the real meaning of the Kents Hill Gulf Coast mission trip clicked. This isn’t a trip to get out of the state to just fix houses and learn how to use tools. This was an opportunity to better people’s day and change their lives, even if it’s just by doing something small like a hug or raking a yard. I can’t wait to get home to tell my dad all about the life-changing work going on here in Slidell, Louisiana.
Scott T.’23 - Today we made the finishing touches on our staircase. It involved lots of weird cuts and perseverance. My work partner, Yevy, was really fun to work with and was always full of energy. Shout out to her for holding about 40 spindles for me to make cuts and screw in. It was amazing to see the family slowly brighten up, and at the end Tanner and I had a beautiful conversation with the homeowner’s grandson. There was a point at which I was getting a bit frustrated from not finishing the staircase in four days and was beginning to think it was all for nothing, but his conversation reminded me of why we came on the mission trip. We weren’t here just to put in a few screws, we were here for people, to hear stories, and to make people feel like they mattered. Although we didn’t fix everything, we brought their family happiness. We undoubtedly succeeded, and I would not change anything about this mission trip.
Saturday, March 11 – The Final Report
Jeff Munson reporting:
I promised an update for Friday and didn’t find the time to write it. On Thursday evening during our construction wrap-up, we discovered that we had received the wrong screws for a floor that had been put down, and we knew that we needed to make it right before we left for the week. There were no other projects scheduled for us, so the 5 construction leaders decided to run out to the work site, remove the old screws on the floor (several hundred) and install the new ones. We thought it would take a couple of hours but it only took 32 minutes! With that done, we were able to get back to the base camp, put away all of the tools and excess materials from the week, and then head for an afternoon at the beach in Biloxi, Mississippi. It was a good end to a well-worked week.
In our reflection period last night, we looked at the goals we had set for ourselves at the beginning of the week: Fix something, hear stories, and build community all while staying safe. As each member of the team talked about their favorite thing of the week, it was not only clear that we had fixed a lot of things, but that we really had heard a lot of our homeowner’s stories and bonded very closely with them. In the end, everyone agreed that relationship building was the most important thing we did all week, and it was apparent that we had brought some hope and joy into our clients’ lives. And as Jim Fatic said on Monday, it didn’t matter if we didn’t drive a single nail as long as we made someone feel a little more cared for.
Today, we took the team to New Orleans to experience the Irish Channel Sant Patrick’s Day parade (always a blast) and then spent some time in the French Quarter being well-behaved tourists until it was time to return to the recovery center for some sleep before the first teams leave for the airport at 2:00 a.m. I’m planning on hitting the road for the drive north around 6 a.m. and looking at, as the Weather Channel calls it, a “potential Nor’easter” at the end of the trip. It was sunny and in the 70s and 80s here all week, so I guess it’s fair to have to deal with a little snow; after all, it is still only March.
Will there be a Mission Trip in 2024? Even though I am retiring, Susan Baker and I are still looking forward to leading another team from Kents Hill School and Readfield United Methodist Church down here next March. We will just need a little help from the school to organize the participants. Thanks to all who supported us on this trip and followed our adventures.
I’ll finish this series with a shameless plug for the John Munson Community Engagement Fund which helped support the members of this trip. If you would like to help provide support for future community engagement trips, such as this, please go to www.kentshill.org, and select John Munson Community Engagement Fund on the drop-down designation menu! Thank you in advance.