Plenty of volunteer opportunities are still available in hurricane-ravaged areas

Since August 2005, the Gulf Coast of Mississippi has been in desperate need of help as it recovers from the wrath of Hurricanes Katrina.

As a member of AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, I have been but a small part of the recovery effort, and it is invaluable for the rest of the country to understand the devastation still lingers nearly two years later.

Despite three weeks of training in Denver, Colo., it wasn’t until my team of nine arrived in Long Beach, Miss., that we became witness to the reality of Katrina’s destruction. Our first drive along Beach Boulevard, which stretches the entire coast, showed the loss of business, life and hope.

In places that houses, restaurants and stores once stood, all that remains are bits and pieces of demolished foundations, leaving a vivid resemblance to a ghost town.

After completing our first six-week project here in Harrison County, working for Harrison County Long-Term Recovery and Habitat For Humanity, my eyes opened to the incredible need for continuous recovery efforts.

Our team has played an integral role in many stages of the recovery process. We have gutted houses not touched since the storm, where cockroaches run wild, mold grows on walls and water damage is abundant. People often think that meeting the families of those they are helping is a vital way of making their volunteer work more personal.

Although I agree, helping anonymously is equally gratifying. We have been fortunate to have experienced both scenarios. For example, my teammates and I removed interior and exterior debris from a 101-year-old man’s demolished home. On the day the house was demolished, his wife passed away.

We never got to meet him, but knowing his story, and sorting through two tons of clothing, dozens of dish sets, toy collections, and two entire lifetimes strewn across a yard made me realize just how big this storm was. I have learned, painfully at times, always to remember how each individual life has been affected.

That is just one example of the desperate need for long-term help along the Gulf Coast.

Although the media coverage rarely mentions Hurricane Katrina anymore, as citizens we need to make ourselves aware of the reality, and do what we can to make it better. Programs such as AmeriCorps NCCC provide young adults with a structured, full-time, residential means of national and community service, but NCCC is only a small part of what good is happening down here.

Organizations like Habitat For Humanity, Project Teamwork, Hands On Gulf Coast and Common Ground provide limitless opportunities for anyone willing and able to make a change.

Visiting the Web site is a valuable resource for anyone considering service. Local church groups also house and facilitate work for volunteers.

The problem is big in the Gulf Coast, but bettering it is only a click or call away.

Ariel Epstein of Auburn is an AmeriCorps volunteer in Mississippi.