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Teacher Returns from Year-Long Katrina Effort

Gill Remembers Her Biloxi

While the majority of teachers unpack their boxes of school supplies, Monica Gill will unpack her suitcase to prepare for the 2007-2008 school year.

Gill, chairperson of the social science department at Loudoun County High School, took a one-year, unpaid leave of absence, last year to help rebuild homes and lives destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

"Last year was so different from anything I’ve ever experienced before," she said. "My experience was with kids, not disaster relief."

The journey began when Monica Gill’s husband, Doug Gill came home from trip with friends to Biloxi, Miss.

"I turned to my minister friend and said, ‘I don’t think I’m supposed to leave,’" he said.

When Doug Gill returned to his Loudoun County home, he talked his wife into joining him on a year-long journey to help Hurricane Katrina victims.

"I wasn’t going to go a year without him," she said, "so I called Loudoun County Public Schools and they approved my leave that day."

When Monica Gill requested to take the year off, she said school administration, specifically her principal, Bill Oblas, were extremely supportive.

"They thought it was a good experience to take back to my classroom," she said. "And I will."

WHEN THE GILLS arrived in Ocean Springs, Miss., a small town just five miles outside of Biloxi, in September, they were assigned to a small trailer located in the back of a church parking lot.

"I’ll admit it, I’m spoiled," she said. "But the lessons I learned there, I will carry them with me for the rest of my life."

While Doug Gill was assigned the role of construction director, Monica Gill’s first task was to interview the residents of Biloxi, she would be working with over the course of the year.

There she met women like Cora Phillips whose house was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Despite the fact that she did not have a lot of money, Phillips would give aid workers a couple of dollars to buy lunch at a restaurant down the road, or her children and grandchildren would come over with car loads of homemade food for them.

"They were just so grateful," Monica Gill said.

After successfully meeting with and interviewing the elderly residents of Biloxi, Monica Gill took on the role as case manager of a handful of residents there. She assessed the destruction of homes and status of residents to make sure they fit the criteria to be eligible for government aid. She also helped residents fill out applications for grant money.

"For example, the Red Cross application is 64 pages long," she said. "That can be overwhelming for someone who has a high-school education or less. They really needed someone to hold their hand through the process. That’s where I came in."

When the money did come in, Monica Gill said she got to take residents shopping for home furniture and appliances.

"My job was great," she said. "I got to take little old ladies shopping at Home Depot. They were always so excited."

DOUG GILL’S days on the job were a little bit different.

"My job was to get the money in place," Monica Gill said. "He was out there swinging the hammer and overseeing construction."

In total, Doug Gill said he helped rebuild over a dozen homes, but the most important thing, for him, was the connections he made with the people of Biloxi.

The husband-and-wife team recalled one woman, Elsie Dickson, an 80-year-old woman they befriended over the course of the year. Dickson talked to the Gills about her involvement in the civil rights movement there, the NAACP and how she participated in marches down the streets the Gills helped clean up.

"She has been through so much," Monica Gill said. "Yet she continued to hang onto her faith. She inspired us."

In addition, the Gills led a youth internship program there.

WITH SEPTEMBER right around the corner, the Gills are preparing to go back to work.

In order for the Gills to take a year off from work, they had to raise money from family and friends to support their efforts.

Monica Gill said the experience was a humbling one, to rely on other people to pay their bills, and she was forced to live on a budget.

"I’ll admit it, I lived a charmed life. I wanted to change myself," Monica Gill said. "I never worked so hard for so little and have been so happy."

While Monica Gill is anxious to return to school, she said she has mixed emotions.

"I love teaching history, but I’m still not sure how I’m going to adjust," she said. "I just don’t want them to be forgotten."