Rocky Mountain Youth Corps workers toil to rebuild Gulf Coast

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Wesley Trimble of the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps helps clear a trail near Gulfport, Miss., as part of the Gulf Coast Relief Crew sent to assist in the long-term recovery of the region after Hurricane Katrina.

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From left, Ashley Aue and Rachel Brookes stand on a trail the Rocky Mounty Youth Corps workers cleared near Gulfport, Miss., in May.

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Rocky Mountain Youth Corps worker Erica Zaveloff takes a break while building a trail near Gulfport, Miss., in May as part of a Gulf Coast Relief Crew.

— Along the coast of Mississippi, a crew of 10 Rocky Mountain Youth Corps workers toiled across a landscape still wounded by the havoc wrecked by Hurricane Katrina.

Almost two years after the storm, piles of debris litter neighborhoods and thousands of families have not returned home.

"I was really shocked by how much damage was still obvious and how much work there was left to do," said Erica Zaveloff, 24, from Bordertown, N.J. "We worked in neighborhoods that were completely leveled, and nobody had moved back in yet. All that was left were foundations with stairs leading up to nothing."

For the past four weeks, the Steamboat Springs-based RMYC workers built trails, cleared debris and helped heal an area that many of them said has lost its environmental consciousness.

The 10-person crew, minus two members who have left the group, returned to Steamboat Springs on Monday and began their next assignment - repairing a trail at Pearl Lake State Park. But the memories of the Gulf Coast linger.

"It's really sad that things are laying in ruins down there," said Libby Garrison, 20, from Bakersfield, Calif. "I just really wanted to get down there and see what it was like and be able to help."

The crew built trails and cleared debris near Gulfport and Kilm, Miss., and built a playground at an elementary school in New Orleans.

"To have your home taken away from you and wiped away is such a horrible thing," she said. "I thought it would be really good to be helping at least someone get something back."

The city of Steamboat Springs' Parks, Open Spaces and Recreation Services Department established the corps in 1993 as a way for teens and young adults to develop job skills, work ethic, service to the community and educational opportunities.

The corps has since been privatized and obtained nonprofit status, which RMYC officials said has enabled the organization to expand its geographical boundaries and create more funding opportunities.

"This is definitely the furthest we have ever sent a crew," said RMYC Development Director Sheila Wright. "We typically have crews out working in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah."

Crew leader Ashley Aue, 22, from Royal Oak, Mich., said the crew went to the Gulf Coast region thinking they would build houses. Tom Fox, owner of Fox Construction, trained the crew in house framing and drywall installation, but in many areas, home sites were not ready to be rebuilt.

"The last week there we were pulling debris out of designated areas - mattresses, toys, clothes and mementos," she said. "Sometimes it was frustrating because it felt like it would never be done."

Andreas Kavountzis, 19, of Teaneck, N.J., said he found a set of family photo slides.

"In one of them there was this little kid by a house," he said. "We pulled some trim earlier in the day from the woods that matched the home in the slide. It was pretty weird to recognize it."

The group lived in bunkhouses or tents with hundreds of other youth corps program workers who were deployed to the region as part of a Gulf Coast Recovery Corps sent to assist in the long-term recovery efforts.

Between tall glasses of sweet tea that the crew said was capable of inducing a sugar coma and plates of fried catfish, jambalaya and gumbo, the crew sweated it out in 90-degree temperatures.

"Mississippi was wild," Kavountzis said. "It was so hot and humid. The work was a lot different. We were interacting with the people daily."

The crew has traded the wetlands and beaches of Mississippi for the mountains of Colorado, exchanging humidity for the lung-crushing thin air.

"Out here in Colorado it's serene, wooded and relaxed," he said. "You see people differently."

Favorite memories ranged from a plate of "bona fide" shrimp to proving to an old man that girls are as strong as boys.

"He told me five or six times, 'You do alright for a girl, Libby,'" Garrison said in her best Southern accent.

Aue added, "Another guy wanted to know what crimes we committed to get there."

Dirty, battered and tattered, the crew returned to Steamboat with poison ivy rashes, while Zaveloff sported a bandage covering the spot where a nail went through her boot and into her foot.

"In terms of meeting people, we experienced Southern hospitality to its finest," Zaveloff said. "I believe what we did in Mississippi will really inspire the younger and older people to get involved with their environment."

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