Students at Gulf Coast Fair Housing Center
Thirty UT Law students volunteered in the Mississippi Gulf Coast region over winter break, January 6 to 11, 2008, providing assistance to organizations addressing residents' post-Hurricane Katrina legal needs. Paul Di Blasi, '08, Jessica Cassidy, '09, Amber VanSchuyver, '08, members of the Justice Center's Student Advisory Board, organized the effort. Justice Center members Eden Harrington and Mary Crouter volunteered with the students. The Justice Center provided logistical and financial help.
The students traveled to the Gulfport/Biloxi area where they volunteered with the Gulf Coast Fair Housing Center, the Mississippi Center for Justice, and Turkey Creek Community Initiatives. The students researched fair housing law and the allocation of reconstruction funding, worked on neighborhood surveys and preservation projects, and helped with an evening legal clinic in an impoverished rural inland area affected by the hurricane.
"The trip was an amazing opportunity to see firsthand how little has changed in the Gulf Coast in the last two and a half years since Katrina hit," said student organizer Amber VanSchuyver. "Despite the fact that government seems to have overlooked so many within the community, it was inspiring to see how willing these individuals were to share their stories with us."
Students with Derrick Evans, director of the Turkey Creek Community Initiative
Participants report that the trip offered them the opportunity to serve and to develop professionally. "When I arrived at the Gulf Coast I was so saddened by what Katrina had done to the community," said Michelle Garza, '09. "After my stay, I felt so fulfilled because I knew that I had helped, even just a little bit. My career goal now is to find a path that will leave me with that same feeling of fulfillment every single day." Kaitlin Farrell, '10, noted that the trip gave her "the chance to actually apply most of the skills I learned during my first semester of law school. Spending a week of my break in Mississippi helped to put all of my long study hours into perspective. This trip made it evident that many people are in significant need of legal assistance."
"It is heartening that these students chose to spend part of their winter vacation on pro bono work with these worthy organizations," said Eden Harrington, director of the Justice Center. "Students were clearly moved by the region's continued devastation and the unmet legal needs of low-income residents in the area. The volunteer work was challenging and rewarding, and we plan to arrange similar trips in the future."
The student organizers and the justice Center would like to extend a special thank you to the student drivers who transported the group to and from Mississippi and between various destinations in Gulfport-Biloxi. The work they did made the trip possible. We appreciate their generosity, patience and good cheer. Kudos from the Justice Center to Paul Di Blasi, Jessica Cassidy, and Amber VanSchuyver for their leadership, enthusiasm, and hard work. They pushed to make the trip happen, helped recruit and organize the group, made the contacts to set up the projects, and handled the week in Mississippi with flexibility and grace.
The student organizers worked with the Student Hurricane Network, a national association of law students dedicated to providing long-term assistance to communities affected by Hurricane Katrina, which matches student volunteer groups with nonprofit groups.