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Guest blog piece by Julio Murillo, an MC student that took an alternative spring break this year to build houses with Habitat for Humanity in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.

I was checking my student e-mail one day and I saw an e-mail that was about volunteering to build houses in Mississippi.  I knew that I was just going to be working during my spring break, so I decided to apply for this opportunity.  Before getting picked, I had to have an interview with two coordinators of student life of the Germantown campus.  After the process, the whole expense paid trip would cost me only $250.  Montgomery College teamed up with Habitat for Humanity and Hood College.  The purpose of the trip was to go to Bay St. Louis, and help build houses for the people that lost their homes during Katrina.

My personal experience was more than I ever expected.  The group from MC consisted of 20 students from all three campuses and three chaperons.  We arrived in New Orleans on Sunday the 13th of March then we drove about an hour and a half to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.  We worked Monday through Friday from 8 am to 5 pm.  I had no prior experience in construction, so I came back home somewhat of a skilled man.  One of the requirements of the future home owners is to put in “sweat hours,” which means that they have to help build houses too before getting their home.  In the week that I was there, I met three future home owners.  They were really grateful for all the volunteers that gave up their spring breaks to build houses.  After talking with the future home owners, they gave me a really good feeling because I saw how appreciative they were for the work that we were doing.  It was cool to see the actual people that are benefiting from our work.

The volunteers during my stay were mostly college students from all over the country, and I made friends with a lot of people I would have never met if it wasn’t for this trip.  One of my best memories was going to Wal-Mart for two reasons:  first, Bay St. Louis is an extremely country town, so there is nothing to do there other than make bonfires and enjoy the beach.  Wal-Mart was about 25 minutes away from where we stayed, so I actually got excited to go to Wal-Mart.  The second reason is that I met a cashier with an amazing story.  I can’t remember the cashier’s name but she told me how Katrina affected her.  She told me how she lost absolutely everything, and that the storm was so bad that she thought she was going to die in it.  She had been separated from her family, but she was lucky to reunite with them shortly after the storm.  Now 6 years later, she is just starting to get her life back on track, and she is going to be getting married at the end of the year.  The way she told the story was so genuine, passionate, and moving that I will remember it for the rest of my life.

To give you a sense of all the conversations I had with the locals, most of them honestly love their city and do not want to leave, but the amazing thing I notice was that most of them had such high spirits even though things would never be the same.  It was obvious that some things were not the same.  For example, in the town where I stayed, there was a section of houses that seemed normal, but between those houses were wide open spaces with mailboxes in front, and a base in the center where the house used to be.  Also, there were still signs on the street that people used during the aftermath of Katrina, which showed their hope and faith.  For instance, I saw one that said “In God we still believe.”

In conclusion, this was a fun experience and I learned so much.  I expected to help people, but I felt that this experience benefited me too.  I made really good friends, volunteered, and I visited new places.  People always thanked us for giving up our spring breaks, but to be honest I did not feel that I gave up my spring break at all.

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