In the nearly three years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Kirk Kleckner has organized two goodwill visits to Biloxi, Miss. But his visit this month will be different. Nearly a quarter of his Biloxi Builders are expected to be teenagers.
"The other trips I've been on have been with adults and included a lot of seniors," said Kleckner, a New Brighton businessman. "But the young people have shown a lot of interest.
"We're going to sweat a little more in Biloxi in late July, but we wanted young people to have this opportunity to make a difference."
Nicole Thompson, 17, a recent Irondale High School graduate headed for Cornell College in Iowa, is among the New Brighton-based contingent headed to Mississippi. She said she's "never done anything like this before. I don't know what to expect."
So her friend Vanessa Kleckner, 18, offered her a primer. Vanessa, Kirk's daughter and St. Olaf-bound, accompanied her family to Biloxi two years ago. Her snapshot memory of Biloxi is not likely to be found on any postcards.
Wading through broken branches and ruptured foundations, she entered houses in which mold was as plentiful on the walls as nails and debris on the floor.
"All the buildings along the coast were gone," Vanessa recalled. "The houses that remained had to be completely redone. There was mold and water damage and it didn't take more than a few seconds to see how badly people needed help.
"It scared me. It made me glad I live in Minnesota."
Yet, she will return with the Biloxi Builders, the New Brighton-based group that evolved from the volunteers who initially traveled to Biloxi in a relief effort after the hurricane struck in 2005. The first two trips were sponsored by Christ the King Lutheran Church in New Brighton. Kirk Kleckner, one of the leaders of the congregation, stressed recently that this month's trip, from July 28 to Aug. 2, is open to everyone 16 and older.
The group's mission is to provide volunteers for the housing development sponsored and organized by Habitat for Humanity of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and Thrivent Builds Worldwide Gulf Coast Community.
"People always ask, 'How can I help?'" Kirk Kleckner said. "They can help through fundraising. Or they can volunteer. Just find a location and get involved."
For Vanessa Kleckner, getting involved has gotten personal.
"I look at the photos form our first trip, but they don't tell you the stories of how grateful people were to receive help," she said. "We went into houses, stood on ladders. In return, one person bought hotdogs for us. One brought two buckets of ice cream. These people had lost anything, but they wanted to do what they could ... for us."
She said she became so absorbed in her mission that she forgot about the heat. Nicole Thompson has heard the stories.
"The heat's going to be one of the hardest things for me," she said. "But when I think about the devastation that Katrina caused and what these people have gone through, I can take the heat."
Paul Levy 612-673-4419