Eight members of the Sterling Volunteer Fire Department took time away from their day jobs and hours at the station to help rebuild lives of Hurricane Katrina victims in Pearlington, Miss.
John Bischoff, assistant fire chief of the Sterling Volunteer Fire Department, recruited his wife, Danielle Bischoff, and six other volunteers, to drive 16 hours to Pearlington to rebuild people’s homes that were destroyed by the storm one-and-a-half years ago. He got the idea from a co-worker at America Online who volunteers her time there regularly.
"They need quite a bit of people power down there," John Bischoff said. "I thought, let’s do it."
The Sterling Volunteer Rescue Squad provided the troop with a van and local businesses provided them with supplies.
On the morning of Saturday, March 17, John Bischoff, Danielle Bischoff, Kerri Smith, Jason Carlow, Patrick Todd, Bryan Knight and Kevin McKowski drove to Pearlington to help rebuild homes, and lives, of people they had never met.
THE STERLING TEAM arrived in Pearlington Sunday, March 18. They arrived at Charles B. Murphy Elementary School where they received a run-down from local volunteers. They were assigned to the school’s science lab where there were several rows of bunk beds for the crew to sleep on. Breakfast, lunch and dinner was served out of a military tent. There was a quarter-mile walk to cold showers and locals warned them about black widow, brown recluse and brown widow spiders.
"And that’s not getting into the snakes," Danielle Bischoff said.
One of the group’s first stops was the town’s fire station.
Before Hurricane Katrina, the Pearlington Fire Department had 35 full-time employees, John Bischoff said. Now, there are 12 firefighters and employees there.
So, the Sterling volunteers picked up the slack for the one week they were there.
Between laying the foundations for two Pearlington homes, the eight volunteers responded to two automobile accidents and three medical assists.
When they weren’t responding to calls, they were meeting Pearlington residents, clearing fields, cutting down trees and hammering roofs across wooden beams.
The volunteers, aside from John Bischoff, had little to no experience rebuilding homes.
SMITH, A DRIVER for the Sterling Volunteer Fire Department, said she was motivated to learn how to lay foundations and construct a roof by listening to two Pearlington residents’ stories.
"You hear all kinds of stories down there. Everybody has one," John Bischoff said. "Some are extremely tragic and some are full of hope."
For example, Tony had the opportunity to evacuate his trailer home when Hurricane Katrina barreled through the Gulf Coast, but the Pearlington firefighter chose to stay with his neighbor Sandra.
"He said, ‘If you’re not going, I’m not going,’" Smith said.
Hurricane Katrina destroyed Tony’s trailer and demolished Sandra’s home, which had been in her family for generations.
The volunteers cleared Sandra’s land, tore down the remains of her old home and rebuilt the foundation to her new one while they were there.
Sandra gave Tony, who has cancer and diabetes, a piece of land behind her house cleared by the Sterling Volunteer Fire Department, to rebuild his life on.
"He took care of her. Now she’s taking care of him," Smith said.
The group of eight worked through lunches to give Sandra some sense of security before they left.
"There was no need to stop," McKowski said. "To this lady, it was her life."
"It was hope," Danielle Bischoff said.
THE VOLUNTEERS DROVE straight from Pearlington, Miss., to Sterling. They only stopped for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The group of eight reflected on their trip on the ride back.
One thing that struck Danielle Bischoff was how appreciative Sandra, and the other residents, were of the volunteers’ efforts.
"All we gave her was a roof, a floor and some walls and she was so appreciative," Danielle Bischoff said, "as if it was God’s gift."
John Bischoff, who said he was anxious to get home to take a hot shower, would not have spent his vacation any other way.
"The town of Pearlington is split. The suicide rate is up, drug use is high. People are giving up," John Bischoff said. "Then you have another Pearlington that’s totally looking forward. I’d never been there before, but I will definitely go back."