Gulf Coast Relief Group


 Don't leave us stranded       


Gulf Coast 2013



Trip recap

    Our Gulf Coast Relief Group has safely returned from our week in Louisiana and I am happy to say that our trip was a success and that our seventeen students were outstanding in how they committed themselves to helping others and in their exemplary behavior. They were truly a pleasure to be with, from our 36 hour train ride to our plane ride home. I would like to give you a synopsis of what we accomplished in the New Orleans area and hope you have a chance to visit our links on the Mansfield High School Website to read our article in the Boston Globe and to see photos that will be collected over the next week or so. 

    Our trip would not have been possible without the tireless leadership from fellow chaperones Deb Sutherland and Susan Jenkins. We had many laughs and enjoyed seeing our students experiencing many unique situations. There is always a level of stress with staying in a new camp and driving over huge bridges and unfamiliar highways. We enjoyed the trip but were happy to be home with our own style of cooking and our clean showers. Our camp was situated in a Lutheran church facility and we stayed in rooms formerly used as classrooms.....think of fifteen bunk beds in my science classroom. On our first day we worked with A.R.C. in Metarie, just outside of New Orleans, where we sorted and packed donated Mardi Gras beads. The beads are collected in enormous cartons and are sorted, repackaged and sold to the floats for the various parades. ARC depends on this money to maintain their soup kitchens. We sampled the soups made from the organic gardens surrounding their building. Without volunteers like us who travel to the area, this fundraising project would not be possible. You would have been so proud to see how our students interacted with the people there. 

    On day two we worked at a National Historic Military Cemetery in Chalmette. We cleared out weeds between the headstones since weed whackers are not allowed to come near the historic markers. We heard many stories of storm survival. We were able to make a difference where few are able to spend time as volunteers and where the post hurricane economic situation does not allocate resources to maintain areas of historical importance. Next door to the cemetery was the revolutionary battleground and plantation where we explored and ate lunch beside the Mississippi River. 

    On Wednesday we ventured to a Horse Rescue Ranch in Belle Chaisse. The owner rescued horses after Hurricanes Katrina and Isaac. The flood waters were contaminated with toxic and caustic chemicals causing some of the animals to become burned and blind. The ranch had twenty horses, ten ponies and various other livestock including the most hilarious pig I have ever met. We cleaned stalls, walked the horses and listened to harrowing tales of animal rescue and how the rehabilitated horses are used to help children and adults in need of physical and mental therapies. The ranch was situated along the Mississippi and we ate our lunch while sitting on top of a levee. 

    Day four was a day of exploring the city of New Orleans. We started with a two hour class at the New Orleans School of Cooking where our students listened to the culinary history of the area with the influx of many cultures, the various battles fought there and the influence of the Mississippi as an international port and passageway. We met up with Ms. Kathy Litchfield who started the Mansfield High School Gulf Coast Relief Group in 2008. Our students walked through various areas of New Orleans, enjoyed beignets at Cafe du Monde and shopped at the French Market. 

    Friday brought us to a former church building being leased by A.R.C. that needed painting, sanding and rust proofing of the support beams. The A.R.C. organization was going to rehab the church into a gymnasium. The entire complex was flooded in twenty feet of water for several weeks after the levees broke. 

    If you see any of our Gulf Coast Relief members around the school please congratulate them on a job well done. They represented our school with pride, endured a week of very stressful news that was the focus of the entire country, and came back with many volunteer experiences that we hope inspire them to continue volunteering as young adults. 

Thank you for your support. 


Debbie Fournier



Amtrak Train Route
New York City to New Orleans, the Crescent route

Gulf Coast Photos

Check here for photos and information.

Watch a moving video of the reason we go and how you can help.

We're going back!


Danielle koury
Alyson Bailey
Nicole LeBlanc
Jaclyn Krikorian
Monica Rhein
Jessica Shachat
Meghan Neely
Ryan Lund
Christine McCabe

Shannon Keohane
Delaney Jodice
Emma Dion
Nora Wells
Karina Craft
Carly Griffin
Brooke Allen
Craig Smith

This is the new group of volunteers who will be going to the delta this year to help with the disaster relief. 


 Gulf Coast Relief Group 2012

Sitting, from Left to Right...Angela Piro, Brendan Murphy, Conor Monks, Maria Platsidakis, Alyssa Maslin. Back row, from Left to Right...Forest Holmes, David Polutchko, Mariah Scott, Brooke Waugh, Bridget McCarthy, Courtney Campbell, Danielle Koury, Stephanie Crowley, Shannon Keohane, Deb Fournier, Deb Sutherland. (insert, Sue Jenkins)


Gulf Coast Relief Group
Mansfield High School Students
Volunteer in Bay
St. Louis , Mississippi

Principally Speaking...

News and Thoughts from Mansfield High School's Principal...

A Life-Changing Trip

It's hard to believe that it's been nearly five years since the Gulf Coast was forever changed by the devastation that was Hurricane Katrina. For the past three years, a special group of students and teachers have been making the trek to the region, pitching in wherever they could to help the ongoing relief efforts. This year's trip certainly was a memorable one.

Led by MHS science teacher Debbie Fournier, the group of 15 students set up camp in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, a small, rural, coastal town about an hour and 15 minutes east of New Orleans. The group stayed at the Mission on the Bay Camp, a self-contained camp for relief workers run by the Lutheran Episcopal Services of Mississippi. The group was fortunate to have as a guide Mr. Chris Lagarde, special assistant to Congressman Gene Taylor (D-Mississippi). Mr. Lagarde is also a Bay St. Louis native and has spent considerable time working with high school and college students serving as relief workers.

The students worked hard... very hard, removing debris from homes on Main Street in Bay St. Louis. They also worked in preparing houses for painting, performing the arduous task of scraping the shingles (as pictured above). Many of the homes in this devastated region are still abandoned, as people cannot afford to rebuild or insure their existing properties. As chaperone Leslie Gildersleeve points out, "Most people don't realize that the majority of FEMA funds went into rebuilding roads, bridges, and other infrastructure. Many everyday people are so dependent on volunteers to help them recover and restore. As a result, so many of the residents were so appreciative, constantly thanking us."

Mr. Lagarde also connected the MHS group with the University of Mississippi, with a major project to restore the delicate ecosystem by replanting the dune grasses in Biloxi. To be sure, a time-consuming but important task:

The group also had a unique adventure in clearing debris from a house that had been literally blown into the middle of a swamp. Unbelievably, this house was only discovered in March!

As a result, the students cleared pieces of the house crossing a makeshift bridge made literally from planks and plywood that was scattered:

The students had the opportunity to take in New Orleans one day, enjoying such historical features such as the French Quarter. Led by Mr. Lagarde, they also witnessed the areas that still have not recovered, such as the Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish. They also noted the many oil, sugar, and coffee refineries that still are not up to speed.

Both the students and adult chaperones were struck by how warm and genuine all of the residents were. The residents of the area were consistently friendly and grateful, demonstrating how much they value the work of the students. While the students gained this new service learning, they also gained something more. As junior Justin Deckert, one of the 15 students, states, "We all gained a new perspective- that our community is so much bigger than just Mansfield. The people there were just like us, only that they have critical needs."

Once again, a job well done!


Photos 2009

additional photos


Now for the Rest of the (Gulf Coast) Story 

 This an article published after the return from the Gulf Coast by Scott Brigante.

    The hastily prepared segment for the SCOOP gave you a mere snippet of what really happened on our journey to the Gulf Coast.  Many people have been asking us about the trip, so it’s a good time to give you a more complete overview.

    First and foremost, there wouldn’t have been a Gulf Coast Group without Debbie Fournier and Maria Vasilakos.  Debbie went last year and it was her energy and enthusiasm that provided the impetus to take another group this year.  Both she and Maria did most of the critical planning and organizational legwork to take this field trip from idea to reality.

    As for the trip itself, Gulf Coast Group members got up between 3:00 – 4:00AM to get to T.F. Green airport in time to catch the first flight out on Friday, April 17th.   Upon are arrival, we hit the ground running and this is what our week looked like (in approximate chronological order):

    At the airport in New Orleans, one of our group members was stricken with a stomach virus (and we got him directly to our camp to convalesce).  We were greeted by one of our project managers, Chris, who gave the group a tour of New Orleans.  The group traveled about an hour east to Bay St. Louis and Mission on the Bay.  Mission on the Bay is a camp for volunteers providing food, shelter, and logistical support to the Hurricane Katrina relief work.  Everyone settled in after a very long day of traveling.

    We started work the next morning and worked for six straight days on the following projects:

    We landscaped a yard for an elderly gentleman who had recently had his home (near the beach on the Gulf of Mississippi) rebuilt.  While the man wasn’t home at the time, a few of us ran into him the next day and he was very grateful to us for doing work that he was unable to do himself.

   We cleared debris from a catholic cemetery in a traditionally African American parish.  This job included some heavy lifting, as there was concrete debris in the pile we were assigned to.  This took a couple of hours. We drove to a jetty on the Gulf and dumped the clean concrete there to reinforce the structure.

    We prepared an abandoned building lot for the removal of construction and demolition debris (also known as “C&D”).  This required moving a large pile of lumber (much of it rotted) from the back of the lot out to the street.  We also cleared off the concrete slab that the house stood on before the hurricane.  This required gathering loose bricks and scraping linoleum tiles off of the cement. During this job, the man across the street, Mr. Ashton, brought doughnuts for us to eat and shared his harrowing story of survival with the group.  Mr. Ashton had to swim out of his house and cling to a piece of furniture for 3 hours during the height of the storm while his home was destroyed.

    We removed debris washed up on a beach on Cowand Point in Bay St. Louis.  This included removing a very large black tarp and a tank filled with sand.  Yes, we found a dead sea turtle that had washed  up on the beach during a storm prior to our arrival.  Our site manager had been asked by state agencies to document the turtle’s size, photograph the animal, and bury it so that a collector could not poach its remains.

    We did some yard work in the neighborhood of our project manager, clearing brush and working around his house as well as at other home sites.  It was clear that our host spends a great deal of time helping others and we were happy to be able to help him so he could continue doing his good work to rebuild the community.

    We visited the emergency operations center in Bay St. Louis, a building that used to house one of the first “separate but equal” segregated black schools in Mississippi.  The building looked as if it had been frozen in time at the moment the waters receded from the hurricane 4 years ago.  It was dark and eerie and filled with a hodge-podge of debris and emergency supplies as well as some potential hazards.

    We helped a woman whose list of misfortunes is too long to list here.  Her replacement home had been built but the remains of her FEMA shelter had to be demolished or moved and debris cleared.  She was facing pressure from the town to clear her property but she didn’t have the means to take care of it.  We spent several hours working on the site.  The homeowner came to the site to thank us personally for taking the time to help her out.

    We drove to a home in Louisiana to paint a barn structure that was under construction and set large posts into the ground as a frame for a chicken coop.  One of the interesting geological aspects of the Gulf Coast is that there are very few rocks in the ground – an alien experience for native New Englanders!

    On our last day of work, we split into two groups.  One group drove to a home that had been rebuilt by volunteers but needed a defective ceiling replaced.  We pulled the old sheet rock ceiling down and hung 9 new 4’ x 8’ sheets.  The other crew helped prepare the grounds of Mission on the Bay and the Christ Episcopal Church for a groundbreaking ceremony to rebuild the sanctuary that was swept away by the storm.  That crew also did some additional yard work at other sites.

    Along the way, the Gulf Coast group visited an ancient Indian burial mound, took in a small festival in the center of the still-struggling Bay St. Louis.  We ate lunch twice under the shade of a large “Shoo-fly” tree and in the shadow of a ruined town hall.  We experienced the best of southern cuisine and the worst of camp food.  We suffered bumps and bruises and sickness (One student and one teacher were stricken with a viral infection) and the incredible swarms of biting bugs.  Through it all, the 15 young men and women of Mansfield High School worked hard every single day and made their 3 teacher chaperones extremely proud.  There were a number of times when we were stopped by local residents and thanked for helping – even if we weren’t working directly to help them.  They also told us their stories of surviving the storm and the tangle of paperwork and obstacles they face in rebuilding their lives. It was a humbling experience that none of us will ever forget. 

    We have so many people to thank for their support.  Let’s start with you, our colleagues.  Through Dress Down Friday donations, raffle sales (most of that income came from teachers and staff) and individual monetary and raffle item donations, the faculty and staff of Mansfield Schools raised hundreds of dollars to help us make this trip possible.  The families of the students in the Gulf Coast Group was exceptionally supportive and represent the kind of compassion and caring that make Mansfield public school students so special.  Our community business partners and community organizations stepped up in a big way to help fund the trip.  Sue Molinda and the health office staff helped us prepare for any health situations while we were on the road.  Mary Tierney did so much to support our efforts that she will always be an honorary member of the 2009 Gulf Coast Group and we will always be grateful to her.  We thank Brenda Hodges, Joe Maruszczak, and the School Committee for allowing us to take this volunteer group to the Gulf Coast.  Last but not least, to our student volunteers who gave their time and money to be part of this journey.  They gave up a week of vacation to toil in hot weather and unpleasant conditions.  They gave up part of themselves– a group of diverse personalities - to work together as a very effective team.  They came home with a new appreciation and gratitude for the many comforts that we take for granted.  They are; Jacqui Ahearn, Alex Barca, Gwen Bibby, Jasmine Barros, Melissa Buchanan, Duncan Fuller, Rachel Goldman, Michelle Greene, Juliet Hooten, Emily Keohane, Brienn McParland, Kevin Mutascio, Kirstin Ridlen, Molly Sherer, Greg Szczesuil.

    We packed so much into our week at the Gulf Coast.  It’s impossible to cover it all.  Please feel free to ask any member of the Gulf Coast Group about our trip.  Every chance we get to talk about this amazing experience will give us the opportunity to bring it back to life.  Stay tuned for photographs and a display of artifacts as we continue to share our stories . . .


Taking a course in lending helping hand



MANSFIELD -- Ahh, spring break - a time for catching up on sleep, enjoying warm weather and resting before the last few months of school.

But for a group of Mansfield High students, their week out of school will be anything but relaxing. They're heading to the Gulf Coast to help residents still homeless from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.

Fifteen juniors and seniors will board a plane with three chaperones April 17 and head to Bay St. Louis, Miss., to help rebuild homes destroyed by Katrina in 2005.

The students say they're eager to help and to talk with residents whose lives were altered by the fifth-deadliest hurricane in U.S. history.

"I'm looking forward to hearing people's stories about what they went through," said Greg Szczesuil, a junior who is going on the week-long trip.

The trip was organized by Debbie Fournier and fellow teachers Scott Brigante and Maria Vasilakos. It will also include a stop in New Orleans so the students can see first-hand the destruction of the Category 3 storm.

While the students won't know what their jobs will be until they arrive in Mississippi, Fournier said she wanted them to learn some tricks of the trade and brought the group to Home Depot, where they learned how to repair drywall and lay tile from master craftsman Dan Lynch.

"I wanted us to go down there with a skill," she said.

This is the second year the school has sent students to the Gulf Coast to help.

Fournier, who went on last year's trip, said she expects the students to be deeply moved by the experience when they see people who lost it all, and are still struggling to rebuild four years later.

"When you see the people who have gone through this trauma, you feel lucky for what you have," she said. "You can't believe how set back they still are."

While students say they are excited to be helping out, they say they're a bit nervous of being faced with the conditions residents are still forced to live in.

"It's going to be emotional," junior Molly Sherer said. "We know that you have to go see it to really understand it."

The students also said they hope the trip makes people aware that the reconstruction of the damaged areas is not complete and likely will continue for years to come.

"It's been so many years," Szczesuil said. "It's not really on people's minds anymore."

The trip will cost about $16,000, with each student having to kick in about $300.

To offset the price, the group did a lot of fundraising, receiving donations from Shaw's Supermarket, Home Depot and Mansfield Bank, as well as numerous other businesses and individual donors.

This year's group will stay at the Mission on the Bay in Bay St. Louis, an Episcopalian church that connects volunteers with those who need it most.

The group will stay in military-style Quonset huts that look like they belong more in the deserts of Iraq than in the United States.

While the huts might be a bit rough, their own sleeping quarters are the least of the group's concerns.

The students will be focused on rebuilding the homes of others.

"It's an incredible learning experience," Fournier said.

MATT KAKLEY covers Mansfield for The Sun Chronicle. He can be reached at 508-236-0333 or at


Hard at work on spring break


Friday, April 18, 2008

MANSFIELD - For most people, spring break means beaches, boards and bikinis. But for a group of Mansfield High students, it will mean hard work for a good cause.

A group of 24 students and four adults will depart Sunday for the Gulf Coast, where they will spend their April school vacation assisting with the ongoing recovery efforts there in the wake of Hurricane Katrina 2 years ago.

In February, 16 other Mansfield High students did the same thing over their winter break.

The trips have been coordinated by Kathy Litchfield, an English teacher and assistant swim coach at MHS who brought the idea to her students after discussing it with a friend who is working there.

"There was so much interest," she said. "It was originally going to be an April trip, but there were so many kids that I decided to split it in two."

The group of 11th and 12th graders will fly into New Orleans, then travel to work at Camp Coastal Outpost, in Kiln, Miss., a town of about 2,000 people. An NBC News reporter said Camp Coastal "has the look of an Army MASH unit, with its rough-hewn bunkhouses, dining tents and makeshift showers."

The volunteers will be assigned various tasks based on their skills.


One of the students heading to the Gulf next week, MHS senior Drew Rumbel, said residents of the Gulf Coast still need help, even though Katrina's impact has fallen out of the headlines.

"What people don't realize is, while we complain about the harshness of winter, there are people in Mississippi who have lost it all from Katrina, and have been suffering an endless battle to find shelter and take care of their families," he said.

But community service isn't cheap.

The total cost of the two trips is about $36,000, and the students have been fundraising to defray the cost through bake sales, can drives and even a school carnival.

Sam Wisel, another senior going on next week's trip, said the fundraising efforts have made the challenge of the trip more rewarding, and he expects the experience to be "life-changing."

"The biggest part of this trip for us, the students and teachers who are volunteering, is that we are helping contribute to our society and being good citizens through helping those who need it the most," he said.

Litchfield said she is proud of her students and impressed by their dedication and commitment. "It is a really, really good group of kids, and they're working really hard to come down together and support each other," she said. "That's really good to see from a group of 16-year-olds who would rather be out with their friends on a Saturday night."

Some additional links

Great, sad site with lots of info, videos, pictures and personal accounts.

Waveland MS and Bay St. Louis are very close to where we are going. 

Interesting article

Katrina by numbers-some interesting stats,8599,1449266-1,00.html 

Some great stuff about Katrina two years later-gives a real idea as to why we are going down there and how much help is still needed.  TONS of great links!! 

Some really intense before and after pictures... 

Again, intense pictures with commentary from the photographers 

Great links to Katrina articles 

FUN FACT: Kiln (pronounced "kill"), Hancock County - aka "the kill," named for the large outdoor furnaces, or kilns, used by early French settlers to produce charcoal

Take some time with this site and watch a few of the video diaries of people and their homes right after the hurricane-the Hancock County DA's tour and home is unbelievable.   This really gives a good idea of what people down there have survived, and makes you realize (hopefully) why we are going down there! If you look at the north west-ish of the map, you will see Kiln, which is where we are going.  Bay St. Louis, and Waveland are only about 8-10 miles away.

Look at the comments below the article

Basic damage by town-Kiln isn't on here, but Bay St. Louis is 

Picture of the storm, how global warming is affecting hurricanes


An estimated census done by the gov.                  

Where Mississippi is of oct. 31, 2007. Again, take with a grain of salt...this is from FEMA                  

Slide show from FEMA...sad                  

Good pr for FEMA...interesting. 

Another gov. issued article on what FEMA did to help... ...

Keeping in mind that Wikipedia is NOT always the most reliable source... ...


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