That Big Blue House? Just ask Mavis

By J. DANIEL CLOUD,

If you’ve driven through downtown Hattiesburg a time or two, especially if you’ve gone from downtown H’Burg to Petal, you’ve seen it: Great big bright blue house at the intersection of Buschman and River streets, very close to East Main Street. Right across the road from The Depot coffeeshop. Right across the parking lot from the downtown Hattiesburg train depot.

That building’s primary purpose, currently, is housing R3SM, which stands for “Recover, Rebuild, Restore South Mississippi”.

Over the recent Christmas-to-New Year’s Eve period, approximately 20 Amish people from Indiana spent a week living in, and working on, that house.

Up to 60 people can be housed in five large rooms, essentially dorms, equipped with bunk beds. There are three other apartments, to be discussed later. There’s a commercial-grade kitchen with two ovens, and an adjacent dining area that can seat maybe 20 or 30 people at a time.

The more-than-100-year-old building has filled many functions over the years, some demonstrable, and some apocryphal. In the stories, the building’s uses have ranged from boardinghouse, to hotel, to what Steinbeck would have called a “cathouse”, to a derelict property, and most recently, as a resting place for disaster-relief workers who are visiting the area.

When the most recent group of Amish volunteers came, it was only partially to work on the big blue house. They did a good bit of work on site, but they also bunked there while venturing into Wayne County and other nearby areas.

One of their jobs at the R3SM building was repairing the roof. They did that for several individual households in regional counties, as well. Another of their volunteer jobs at the R3SM building was painting and replacing the floor in the kitchen.

Mavis Creagh (that’s pronounced Creer) says the facility’s primary purpose is to house volunteers in disaster recovery times. Hence the name.

There are plenty of bathrooms to go around, a large kitchen with three refrigerators, two stoves, cookware and utensils, and a large food-prep island. The dining room, adjacent to the kitchen, is one of the primary meeting spaces the building offers.

While the primary purpose of the building is that it be used as housing for emergency workers, volunteers, etc., it sees plenty of other use, as well, Creagh said, noting that just before the 2019-2020 school year started, “we had about 50 students from USM stay here for about two weeks for the Panhellenic Council”.

For those who, like me, don’t know what that means, it’s a group of sorority girls who need a place to meet “before USM opens up the dorms for the year,” Creagh said. “This is the third or fourth time they’ve rented the rooms for that.”

As previously noted, the building used to be a boarding house, known at one point as Robinson Inn, so its use as a quasi-dormitory isn’t surprising.

The R3SM facility has been used to house workers for quite a few reconstruction and restoration projects over the last decade or so, Creagh said.

Since 2006, when the building was acquired shortly after Hurricane Katrina rocked the Gulf South in 2005, volunteers housed in the building have been involved in more than 60 local home rehabs following a variety of disasters, and have also assisted with constructing 28 new houses.

R3SM sometimes partners with Habitat For Humanity, but they are their own entity.

There are three free-standing apartments in the building that typically serve as transitional housing, and some of the rooms can be rented for a variety of other uses – corporate retreats, family reunions, etc. – but Creagh estimates that the facility is used approximately 80 percent of the time by volunteers from around the country. People coming to southern Mississippi to help build, rebuild, repair, assist.

“We just recently started branching out to allow local organizations and businesses” to use the space, Creagh said. “It allows them to have a meeting space at a very affordable rate.”

For example, she said, “a youth training program from Wayne County” used the space in the summer of 2019. They “did some work on the property, while also doing mentoring and leadership exercises.”

So, what happens if the building is occupied, or scheduled for use, when an emergency occurs?

“The contingency plan is that the volunteers come first in an emergency situation,” Creagh said.

Volunteer workers with Americorps were some of the first to show up, helping to restore the building to usable condition a decade ago. But they were certainly not the last. Some groups come for just a few days, or a week. Others, including a group of Mennonite volunteers (Mennonite Disaster Services) who came from Pennsylvania in late 2017 until 2018, for about eight months, helping with new construction and repairs, both within the facility and in the surrounding multi-county area.

Generally, Creagh said, almost all of R3SM’s funding comes from private donations, or from fundraising efforts. For example, there will be a 5K, 10K, half-marathon run on April 4 to benefit several local nonprofits.

Yes, Creagh will be involved, actively.

After the inaugural race in 2019, she decided to bump up her running.

“I made it, barely, last year,” she said, referring to finishing a 5K (3.2-mile) run. “This year, I’m doubling down, doing the 10K.”

She’s trying to train for that run, while also managing other responsibilities. She’s executive director of R3SM, and does grant writing and outreach. But she’s also secretary and treasurer of the Mississippi chapter of VOAD – the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters.

(That’s a group that, get this, is formed of organizations active in disaster response, whose goal is to help like-minded organizations work together in the event of any such event.)

As anyone who has been paying attention can attest, southern Mississippi has its fair share of emergencies and disasters, including, but not limited to, floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes.

Creagh started at R3SM as a temporary position following Hurricane Katrina, as a case manager. She also worked on several “undeclared disasters” – events that didn’t meet the federal threshold for disaster status, which is when she became truly concerned with “communities coming together to help those people who have been affected, helping them to recover”.

In the past two years, she said, the organization has received more than $2 million worth of volunteer labor hours, and about $4.2 million total, in labor and donations.

In that time, just the past couple of years, they have assisted in 28 new home constructions, not counting the various repair projects as people recover from a variety of natural disasters.

There are people who were affected by the flood damage in south Mississippi almost exactly a year ago, “when about 1,000 people were affected in a few counties,” who still need significant assistance, she said – explaining a minute later that by “people” she really meant “households”.

It’s been more than a year, and they’re still working on damage assessment and case management.

“We’re in 2020, and we’re still looking [damage from] 2018,” she added.

And that doesn’t even include the tornado that hit Laurel a few weeks ago, which has left “at least 50 households with unmet needs,” Creagh said. “Yes, we’re always looking for volunteers, both skilled and unskilled. If all they can do is scrub or paint, we want them all to feel that they’ve accomplished something, that they’ve contributed to something important. Because they are.”

They can use all the help they can get, she said, noting that most people who volunteer come in groups, but some come individually or in small groups: “We always need people who can fill in gaps, to do projects we don’t need a large group for.”

Testifying to R3SM’s efficacy, the group was recently featured in Mississippi Business Journal as one of the top non-profit organizations in the state, a feat of which Creagh is particularly proud.

“Most of the other agencies they awarded have been around and active for much longer than we have, so we’re very honored to be included in their number,” she said, pointing out that there are more than 20,000 non-profit organizations in the state.

In addition to April’s half-marathon, there is a benefit concert coming up, on Friday, Jan. 17, at Heritage United Methodist Church. Last year, a similar concert raised over $10,000 for the organization.

Creagh’s dedication to R3SM and the Pine Belt region “just came naturally,” but may have stemmed in some part to her education. She’s from Hattiesburg – “a proud Hattiesburg High graduate” – and then she went to Mississippi State, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology, “which comes in handy, now,” she said, laughing just a little.

“This is the community where I grew up. One that I love. I want to see it flourish and develop.