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A small yellow house with a white front porch has its lights on in the dusk.

We Can Do It Together will raise funds for a house in Bay St. Louis designed by a company called Southern Pre-built, which constructs the components used in this customized Creole bungalow.

Helping Mississippi, one home at a time

U faculty donate artwork, musical talent to raise funds for rebuilding a home

By Pauline Oo

August 1, 2006

When Hurricane Katrina struck on August 29, 2005, nearly 1,600 people were killed in New Orleans and in towns along the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts. The Category 5 storm displaced hundreds of thousands more from their homes and towns.

Along with the rest of the country, Mette Nielsen was dumbstruck. She considered herself fortunate to have made her home in Minneapolis many years ago and hundreds of miles from the fury and destruction of Katrina. And that sense of gratitude only fueled her determination to do something to help.

Last December, Nielsen, along with her friend, University of Minnesota alum and professional photographer Kevin Hedden, drove to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, a town of about 8,000 people 60 miles east of New Orleans. According to Nielsen, not a building in town escaped damage.

"We were so frustrated with how these small towns seemed to be getting absolutely no attention, especially in Mississippi," says Nielsen. "Basically the entire coast of that state was destroyed."

Working through a group called Disaster Corps, Nielsen and Hedden spent the next two and a half weeks helping build a house, finishing it the day before Christmas.

Nielsen says the generosity of money, time, and effort they saw spurred them "to go back to Minneapolis and raise money [to] build another house." Upon their return to the Twin Cities, they founded We Can Do It Together, a nonprofit dedicated to the simple notion that "people together can make great things happen."

"This fundraiser is a way of continuing to help as other things in the news have taken top billing and pushed Katrina, New Orleans, and Mississippi further and further out of the minds of the American public," says Clarence Morgan, chair of the Department of Art.

On August 10, the nonprofit will host its second fundraiser, "A House for Mississippi Benefit Auction" from 5:30-8 p.m. at the Regis Center for Art on the West Bank of the Twin Cities campus. Numerous University of Minnesota faculty members have joined more than 100 local artists to donate works of art and services to the silent auction.

"What's important for me about this effort is the involvement of the department in helping reconstitute a significant arts region," says Tom Rose, art department professor. "But what's also important is to try to do one thing to help--you can't do everything [in the face of disaster], but [with this fundraiser] we can build one house for one family. All the artists I've spoken with are very enthusiastic about doing this, not only because of the ultimate goal, but because every penny raised will go to build this house."

The Reid Kennedy Trio from the University's School of Music will play at the event. Wine, beer, and food will be served and a slide show will run continuously with images of Bay St. Louis, the destruction, and that first new house that went up [after Katrina].

When Katrina hit, the University went into action to find ways to contribute to relief efforts. Numerous volunteers went to the region, and 57 undergraduates and a number of grad students enrolled in more than 10 departments at the U last fall from colleges and universities affected by the storm.

"This fundraiser is a way of continuing to help as other things in the news have taken top billing and pushed Katrina, New Orleans, and Mississippi further and further out of the minds of the American public," says Clarence Morgan, chair of the Department of Art. "We still have unresolved problems and people in need right here [in the United States] more than a year after Katrina, and this event is one way to keep this issue on the front burner."

The money from the auction will be given to Bay St. Louis contractors. "We feel it's much more important to raise the money here, and then hand it over to the local people whom we completely trust to do this," says Nielsen. And it's not just any house the nonprofit will support. It will build one like the first house Nielsen and Hedden worked on, a beautiful Creole-style bungalow that is perfectly suited to the style and requirements of the community.

"The goal right now is to build one house, at the cost of $100,000, but obviously, if we can raise more money we will continue to do this," says Nielsen.

So, who will get the first We Can Do It Together home?

"We don't know at this point," says Nielsen. "We'll let the local churches set the criteria, but we made a suggestion: that each church would give us some names that we would later put in a hat, and then somebody--not me--would pull a name out. There are hundreds of families that need help, and I'm sure they're all equally deserving. "

Admission to "A House for Mississippi Benefit Auction" is free. "All you have to do is show up," says Nielsen. "And if you feel like it, make a donation."

For more information, see We Can Do It Together or call Mette Nielsen at 612-722-0367.

Further reading: U opens arms (and doors) for victims of hurricane