EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a monthly feature focused on “gems” in the Sea Coast Echo’s circulation area. We all have interesting and sometimes riveting stories from certain times in our lives that should be shared to inform, entertain and inspire. This feature appears the first Saturday of each month.
For most Hancock County residents, the conveniences we took for granted before Hurricane Katrina have been back long enough that we again tend to overlook them.
The reopening of government offices and services, health care options and businesses of all types has faded the memories of the days when we questioned if our communities would survive. So it may be surprising that a small group of headstrong and spirited people are still dealing with the significant setbacks a unique and often overlooked portion of the county experienced in 2005.
This month’s “Gems” live in a community that has:
• Nine churches but no school.
• 1,500 residents but no full-size grocery store.
• Oak canopies over roads with no traffic lights.
Taking old Highway 90 west will give you a glimpse of this historic town before you cross the Pearl River into Louisiana, but you have to turn off Highway 90 just before the Pearlington EZ Serve gas station to begin to appreciate the natural setting of the town.
Moss-draped oak trees stand timeless and untouched. If you know where to look, old bricks denote where expansive lumber mills on the river once stood alongside the town buildings that were spawned by the mills and later crumbled upon their closing around 1907. Pearlington later experienced a growth spurt with the establishment of the Mississippi Test Facility – the Stennis Space Center – in 1961.
Families living along the river north of Pearlington were uprooted to establish the facility’s buffer zone. Many moved to Pearlington and the population grew through the years, unfazed by close encounters with Hurricanes Betsy and Camille.
The good times ended however – as it did for the rest of the coast – when Hurricane Katrina’s eye passed over Pearlington in 2005 and the water washed away all but a few structures. Uprooted once again, residents had to make the painful decision whether to leave their cherished community. That crossroads is where the story of an inspirational grass-roots effort – Pearlington Impact – began.
Joseph Keys was born and raised in Pearlington and evacuated to Stennis Space Center during Katrina. Joseph was not prepared to see what little was left of his town when he returned.
“I was in shock. It was unbelievable and I acted like it didn’t happen. I think I was in denial for a very long time until a volunteer from Pennsylvania came up to me and said, ‘You know what? People need help here and you’re sitting on the sideline. You need to wake up and get going.’ ”
Later I asked that group, “How did y’all pick me to say ‘wake up’ to?” They told me they had sent a group here before and they asked, “Who do you all look to for leadership? Who do you look for when you need help?” Most of the people said, “Joseph Keys.” That blew me away because I never thought people thought of me in that way. That’s when I realized it was time to start recovering.”
Joseph felt there was no sense of community left in Pearlington, only people struggling alone to rebuild. The decision not to rebuild the elementary school and the likely demolition of the gutted library and school gymnasium would leave Pearlington as a community in name only, lacking public social spaces that are essential to a vibrant town.
“Pearlington Impact was formed basically to go to the school board and county supervisors and say, ‘Please spare these buildings. We need these buildings.’ ”
That plea was Pearlington Impact’s first success, and today the rebuilt library and gymnasium are the social, learning, and recreational centers of Pearlington.
Andrea Pack is the library branch manager and a Pearlington Impact member.
“After Katrina, we had nothing. They had taken our school or they chose not to rebuild the school. We had nothing for the children, nothing for the adults, so Pearlington Impact was created to try to just bring people together and try to build events for them.
“The library is the hub for the children. They come in every evening, especially Tuesdays and Thursdays when we’re open until 6 p.m. We have some kids who really spend the day with us in the summer and on holidays. When they were out for spring break, we stayed packed. They normally take up all the computers. The Internet here is all that the kids have so it’s important with their projects. We even help them if they come to us and they want help on science projects.
“We’re more than a library here. The two ladies, Miss Ada and Miss Hill, they have a big heart, they have love for Pearlington, they have love for the people of Pearlington, and we will do anything to help.”
Pack and her staff, through the “Feeding the Gulf Coast” program, have been able to offer snacks to children after school as well as take-home suppers.
“That has really been a blessing in the summer,” Pack added. “Everyday they’ll deliver lunch. Sometime it’s a green salad or sandwiches. It’s kind of like a bag lunch but it’s healthy. Kids tear them up! When they come ask you for food, you know you’re doing something right. It’s very good to be able to offer that, especially for the children we have all day with us. And thanks to United Way we were also able to offer a reading program for a dozen or so students last summer.”
Back in 2006 when Pack was hired and the library was housed in double-wide trailers, she wasn’t looking to dive into any more recovery work. It took time and a little sympathy for her to get involved with Pearlington Impact.
“Joseph Keys would have the meetings at the library and nobody would show up.” Another librarian, Miss Hill, said, ‘Andrea, you need to join and help him.’ I kind of felt sorry for him so I joined and then I talked others into joining. In our little program of 10-15 people, there’s something special about everyone that makes us grow. There’s a talent in everybody. DuJuan Bosarge has her compassion and Suzy Sharp is in her 70s and can work circles around me.”
Bosarge is a lifelong resident of Pearlington who has owned the town’s beauty shop for 31 years. The shop also serves as the hub for information exchange, harkening back to pre-Internet and social media days. Bosarge is especially passionate about one of the group’s initiatives – the Back to School Bash – that provide much-needed school supplies.
“We’re such a low-income community that we feel it’s beneficial to be able to collect school supplies for all the kids in need. Because funding is limited, we can’t guarantee we’ll be able to do the book bags. That’s why we try to have fundraisers and get donations from people in the community or businesses.”
Pack added, “I think we gave out 125 book bags last year with supplies. We hustle for those donations. We try to buy them when they’re on sale. Sometimes we’ll get the book bags at Dirt Cheap and during the off-season.”
Sharp’s talent is fund-raising, which can be a challenge in such a small community.
“Basically we have a lot of friends,” Suzy said with a laugh before deftly separating this writer from $5 for raffle tickets.
Ada Palode, the assistant librarian, was born in her mother’s house in Pearlington and remained there to raise eight children. She started working at the library a year ago and has been with Pearlington Impact for more than 10 years. “Mr. Keys and Miss DuJuan asked me to help. I told them, ‘I’ll be there,’ and I was taught your word is your bond.”
Palode instilled in her children the importance of sharing love and optimism, just as her mother instilled in her.
We all need somebody,” she said. “That’s what I tell people, we need one another. Everybody needs a hug and I’m a hugger. I have to give everybody a hug that comes here – and a smile. That’s just what my mother taught us.”
Besides a place for emotional support, the library is the site for popular events put on by Pearlington Impact. More than 500 people turned out for Trunk or Treat in October, and the inaugural Bunny Hop in April drew about 300 eager participants.
Pack says they have activities for adults too. “The Senior Luncheon is a big hit with 75-100 seniors attending. The seniors love it. They just love seeing each other.”
She also realizes she’s in a special position.
“I’m fortunate working for the library and being on Pearlington Impact because together we can get things done. One might not be able to do it by itself so that part comes together very well. I’m just blessed to be here to be able to do that. I always say the kids are our future and the elders are what we came from. If you can’t have compassion for those two, you’re not too good in my book.”
And what about the oldest fundraiser in America? “We also have our little fundraiser, our bingo. It’s for gifts (not money) and we make a little but it’s the social gathering that the people like.”
Although so much is getting done by this small group, they still need outside help.
“We do have some good people that when we go to them, they’ll donate every time,” Pack said. “With our bingo, we’re just holding our head above water. We’re really going to go after a Coast Electric grant. Little grants like that is what we’re looking for. We’re not wanting anything huge. We just want enough to keep our heads above the water and to be able to bring things to the community.”
Pack’s hope for the future is fairly simple.
“I want to make sure this will always be here for the children because without this, the library, we have nothing to build on at all. Usually your school is what you build on. We don’t have that.”
For those inclined to help Pearlington Impact, volunteering to share ideas at monthly board meetings, helping with fundraising, and helping put on events are at the top of the needs list. Donations of money, bingo prizes and school supplies are always appreciated and can be dropped off at – where else? – the library.
Take the time to visit Pearlington and the living heart of the town – the library. It’s there you might learn how the worst in nature brings out the best in people.
The recovery in Pearlington continues with highs and lows of successes and shortfalls, but the secret to the longevity of Pearlington Impact is best reflected in Miss Ada’s advice, “Stay prayerful, stay joyful. That’s what you have to do.”
If you would like to share a story from your life or you would like to nominate someone to be a Gem, please email: email@example.com.