After returning from a two-week stint in the Gulf Coast last month, parishioners of the First United Church were still trying to wrap their minds around what they had seen.

In mid-August local parishioners traveled to Biloxi, Miss., to help with the rebuilding effort in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Though it has been one year since the massive storm devastated the region, Rev. Cliff DiMascio and his group of volunteers were stunned by the destruction that still remains.

“It surprised me,” Josh Cleveland, a student at Riverside-Brookfield High School said. “There’d be a sign for a gas station and nothing else. There are houses with no doors and no windows. I guess you could call it a war zone.”

DiMascio, First United’s pastor, came up with the idea of a trip to the Gulf Coast last February. The images he saw on television newscasts gripped him both with empathy and anger, and DiMascio said he couldn’t sit idly by.

“I was watching TV and feeling very helpless.” DiMascio said. “I was ashamed of my country and the suffering that those people were going through. I wanted to do something. The most powerful country in the world shouldn’t have people going without water and without food. I mean, if we can rebuild Iraq?the Gulf Coast is a lot closer.”

Members of the volunteer group joined DiMascio because they were curious or wanted to help. Emmaly Sansone, a senior at Proviso East saw the trip as an opportunity to learn more about her self. John Olinde, a cabinet maker, took two weeks of his vacation time to join his son as a member of the group.

The eight people from First United worked through a United Church in Christ ministry called the Back Bay Mission. They divided into two groups of four and spent their time rehabilitating houses. Harry Olinde, John’s son, remembers the painting and caulking that he did. Group members also tore down walls and refurbished a ceiling. The group bought and cooked all their meals.

Some rebuilding has taken place, according to the volunteers, but those efforts appear to be limited to more affluent areas.

“The resort hotels and casinos will come back,” John Olinde said. “Some of them have already started. Right along the coast, that’s prime real estate. But back where regular people live it’s different. There are many empty flats. Many houses have been gutted down to the studs with (Federal Emergency Management Agency) trailers out front, and they’re waiting for insurance companies to settle. They’re waiting for contractors and for competent people to actually do the work. A lot of them have left, and they will not come back.”

Joel Savala, a student at Triton College, said despite the obvious setbacks suffered by the residents of Biloxi, the spirit of the church community is high. Cleveland echoed that sentiment and remembers the events of a Wednesday evening Bible study in particular.

“The people down there just love God,” Cleveland said. “I mean they’re always in a great mood. In this Bible study they just thanked Him for everything. They are very hopeful for the future.”

Harry Olinde too, said the Bible study provided an incredible experience.

“The people down there talked about Jesus as if he was a real person,” Harry Olinde said.

On returning home, the group members reflected on their experiences. John Olinde said he has given a lot of thought to what Biloxi residents have gone through and how they responded. Anger and depression are some of the emotions he would expect, but John Olinde said he also saw an emerging appreciation for the smaller things in life.

When Cleveland returned home and relayed his experience to a friend, it dawned on him how blessed he truly is.

“When I got back home I was talking to a friend on the phone about my trip, and I was telling her stories and she started to cry because she felt bad,” Cleveland said. “That night I was lying in bed and thinking, ‘Wow, I’ve got it really good.’ I didn’t feel that way before the trip.”

DiMascio’s trip was funded in part by donations from area businesses, civic groups and church parishioners.