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A handful of Billings-area teens recently proved that when you travel, you might be surprised by what you see.

Eager to experience a new place and looking forward to traveling with friends, a group from a downtown Billings church witnessed firsthand the long-term devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina while on a service trip to Long Beach, Miss. Most didn't expect what they found.

"I thought it was surprising that all the debris was still there and wasn't cleaned up yet," said 13-year-old Chelsey Day.

"All of the trees were chopped in half," said Scott Anderson, another 13-year-old.

Day and Anderson were two of 13 teenagers and three adults from Billings' First United Methodist Church who traveled to Long Beach in June to help rebuild a house owned by a retired schoolteacher, 60-year-old Joyce Hood.

They spent four days working on her home, which had been severely damaged by high winds and flooding during Hurricane Katrina.

No flood insurance

All of Hood's furniture and appliances were destroyed, and 36 inches of water forced her to gut the house after the storm. She had no flood insurance for her home, which she had owned for about 16 years before Katrina without major weather damage.

At the earliest, it will be two months before she can move back in.

Yet Hood, whom the group called "Miss Joyce," said in a telephone interview that she's often felt lucky since Katrina: lucky that she had evacuated to her mother's house in the Mississippi Delta before the storm hit, lucky to have friends and family to stay with since then, lucky to have many people work to rebuild her house. Groups from several states have volunteered, and with the progress the group from Billings recently made, Hood said the place looks as close to livable as it has since the hurricane.

"They did just what a professional would do," she said. "They worked like little Trojans."

Specifically, the group did a lot of work on the interior walls, such as taping, mudding and cleaning. They also worked on her ceiling.

The man who led the teens to Long Beach praised them for their hard work and good attitudes in spite of long days and extreme weather conditions.

"It was very hot, very humid," said Brian Hunter, the church's youth group director. "They were troupers."

Hood also was impressed by the teens' work ethic. "They never wavered," she said. "They were always happy."

Hood's presence may have had a part in inspiring the teens to do their best.

"She has loved kids all her life," Hunter said. "As soon as the group met Miss Joyce and talked to her, motivation went up."

Visiting a place that had been devastated by the storm also gave the teens a new perspective when they felt exhausted by the work or cranky because of the weather. "It's easy to complain," Hunter said. "But you get down there and you realize you're just visiting. Others are living there."

The teens knew about hard work even before they left for Mississippi, having held several fundraisers to lower the cost of the trip. And the group had discussed what conditions they might find in the hurricane's wake. "Brian [Hunter] told us a little bit about what to expect," Day said. "We talked about our behavior, too, how we shouldn't be goofing off, because this is a serious matter."

Day knew that Long Beach would be different from Billings, she said, but she was surprised by the amount of work that still needed to be done there.

One thing that left a lasting impression was a lone house that had survived. It was made entirely of concrete and it sat on stilts, high up off the ground. "I thought it was sad to see that one house all alone," Day said.

Another thing she remembered was a neighborhood where the only surviving structure was a home's emergency bunker. "I was wondering how big the whole house was," she said.

A little bit of fun

Day's trip wasn't all work. When the group visited New Orleans, a man on the street came up to her and began singing and playing the saxophone.

She also got to try new food, such as shrimp and crawfish. "She called home to tell us she tried seafood finally," said Day's stepmother, Jenny Day. "She was excited."

Day said she feels good about the work the group did, and she's enthusiastic about going on her second service trip next year. Although the group will probably select another destination for the annual trip, they hope to stay in touch with Hood and the people they have gotten to know in Long Beach, which was recently named Billings' sister city.

And even though there is much work still to be done before her house is completed, Hood said the generosity of people like the teens from Billings has made her feel better.

Receiving a potted plant of impatiens from the group when they left made her day, Hood said. "I'm taking very good care of it."

Contact Anne Pettinger at apettinger@billingsgazette.com or 657-1241.

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