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From: Keesler P.I.O         Filed 1/24/06  GCN

Keesler volunteers will be supporting three separate missions 9 a.m. Wednesday in Biloxi. Volunteers with be cleaning up and painting the volunteer village at Yankee Stadium, sorting donated items for distribution at the Salvation Army, and lending a hand where needed at the community center.

Keesler personnel have been helping to restore the Mississippi Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Coast.

After the storm devastated the base and surrounding communities Aug. 29, Keesler's training mission was broadened to include humanitarian relief operations (HUMRO) under the direction of the chapel staff.

The base began documenting HUMRO efforts about three weeks after the hurricane.  As of mid-December, the database reflects:

        291 total missions involving 10 or more people.
        122,736 meals ready-to-eat issued.
        187,660 pounds of food and clothing distributed.
        239,227 gallons of water passed out.
        20,256 man hours expended.

Those figures are probably a gross underestimation, according to Tech. Sgt. Julie Sargent, noncommissioned officer in charge of Keesler's HUMRO office.

"We're reworking our data base, but I suspect we've probably had three times the missions that we've been able to record," Sergeant Sargent explained.  "Our figures don't count groups of less than 10 people, the time spent coordinating efforts with other relief organizations and some of the volunteer work our people are doing with church and civic groups outside the Keesler umbrella.  Some squadrons have been doing relief work on their own, but haven't reported their efforts to us. "But it's not about the politics or who gets credit - Keesler just wants to make sure that people who are suffering get the help they need," she emphasized.

Many of Keesler's humanitarian projects are conducted by first-term Airmen who've just arrived for training.  The 81st Training Group tags new arrivals with a week of hurricane recovery work - half with the HUMRO office to work out in the community and half with the 81st Civil Engineer Squadron to assist with continuing debris removal and cleanup work around the base.

"These young Airmen are amazing - their attitudes are wonderful and their energy and enthusiasm are inspiring," Sergeant Sargent said.  "It makes them proud to be able to make a difference in our stricken communities as part of the Air Force."

But the community outreach efforts extend far beyond the student population.
"It's neat to see colonels getting their knuckles busted next to an airman basic," Sergeant Sargent ob-served.

Team Keesler has been assisting state and federal agencies, charitable organizations and city and county governments, helping out where needed and networking to get things done.

"Our mission has shifted as recovery efforts have progressed," Ser-geant Sargent said.  "We try to make our people available wherever the need exists.

"We can't use Airmen to clean out houses - because of mold and other hazards, they have to be volunteers, not 'volun-tolds'," she continued.  "But there are a lot of other jobs they can do.  They're tackling yard and big debris cleanup, helping out at distribution centers, working at city and church centers and schools - unloading, cleaning, organizing, assembling furniture, whatever needs to be done."

HUMRO efforts range from small projects like assisting schools in reestablishing server connections to big jobs like debris removal and palletizing tons of relief supplies.

One of the base's first big projects was the cleanup of Biloxi's Hiller Park, which is edged by Keesler's Thrower Park and West Falcon Park military housing areas. 

"As debris was cleared, the pulse of life returned," Sergeant Sargent recalled.  "Kids came out to play and families came out to barbecue.  It was a great feeling."

Team Keesler also undertook restoration projects to preserve two Jackson County historical sites - the Old Spanish Fort in Pascagoula and The Old House in Gautier.

Some HUMRO efforts have focused on Katrina's four-legged survivors, helping with abandoned pets and taking supplies to area animal shelters.

Even though it's been nearly four months since Katrina hit and much has been accomplished in many areas, Sergeant Sargent is deeply concerned about the tremendous amount of work that remains to be done.

"It bothers me that so many people are in the same bad shape as they were right after Katrina," she pointed out.  "There are so many forgotten people living in tiny communities all along the coast that don't have the resources that larger cities have.  There are people living in cars, gutted-out houses, attics, tents, in the woods - we're trying to concentrate on those who need us the most.  We also try to refer them to agencies that can help them."

Sergeant Sargent is encouraged by the positive attitudes of coast residents, many who've lost their homes and virtually all of their material possessions.

"The people of south Mississippi have such resilience and enthusiasm," she commented.  "You can see the despair melt off their faces when we come to help.  I think I've passed out as many hugs as bags of ice.

"The men and women of Keesler rock my world," she declared.  "The chaplains got us organized, and we've had great leadership and support from active-duty members, civilians and family members alike.  The concern and dedication they've shown has been phenomenal.

"I've never been prouder to wear this uniform - we're going to plant the seeds of hope, and together we'll grow."

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