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Group puts on homecoming for schools devastated by Katrina

LONG BEACH, Miss.—Students from two south Mississippi high schools posed on the red carpet Saturday, their smiles bright as "paparazzi" snapped photos before they walked into a transformed gymnasium.

Students from Lampeter-Strasburg High School in Pennsylvania wielded the cameras for the finishing touches to the "Hollywood Nights" theme. A group of 40 students and 13 adults traveled from Lancaster, Pa., to give hurricane-stricken Long Beach and Pass Christian high schools something they didn't expect this year—a homecoming dance.

Black and silver stars hung from the ceiling, and movie posters covered the walls. Balloons were tied to the basketball nets. Strobe lights flickered throughout the room, giving it a definite Hollywood feel.

"I didn't think we would have a homecoming dance because of the storm," said Long Beach senior Eddie Alexander. "I thought it would be much smaller than this. They did a great job."

The idea evolved from fundraising to something more personal. When the busload of visitors arrived in coastal Mississippi on Thursday, they'd collected about $40,000 and lots of other donations, such as dresses for the girls and ties for the boys. They brought decorations, food, a photographer and a disc jockey, all the fixings for a high school dance.

"I think it's really sweet because no one here has a lot," said Long Beach sophomore Devin Smith. "It's helping us get back to normal."

Alysia Ozene, a senior at Pass Christian, agreed. "We thought we weren't going to have anything. I think it's great that they're doing this for us."

The day started long before the dancers packed the gym floor.

The female students from Long Beach and Pass Christian were ushered into a makeshift beauty shop in one of the classrooms at Long Beach High.

Four hairstylists and three assistants from Pennsylvania performed their magic on more than 60 girls for Saturday night's dance.

Russ Survance acted as the receptionist and gofer as his wife, Michele, and her co-workers did hair. Russ works for a menswear shop that donated ties for the boys.

"It's a good way to show (students) that people love them and care," he said. "They've been through so much. They think we're doing them a favor, but they're doing us a favor. You can't walk away from here and not have an image that will stay with you forever."

On Saturday morning, the Pennsylvania crew sent the local students packing, saying they wanted the decorations to be a surprise.

While the underclassmen took on the task of decorating, the seniors from Pennsylvania went to Pass Christian to help gut an elderly couple's house that had been destroyed by the hurricane.

At each milestone, the schools shared the homecoming experience.

On Thursday night, the Mississippi students attended a pep rally, where they were called one-by-one from the bleachers to a standing ovation, and sat in on the Friday night homecoming football game between the two schools.

On a more somber note Friday, the Pennsylvania students saw firsthand the damage caused by Katrina's winds and waves.

On a two-hour bus tour, they passed miles and miles of concrete slabs, stairs to nowhere, debris fields and broken buildings in Long Beach and Pass Christian. Many of the 40 students from Pennsylvania's Lampeter-Strasburg High School cried softly in their seats.

"Words can't describe it," ninth-grader Alyssa Weaver said. "It's like an emotional meltdown. You see these pictures on TV and then you get down here and it's real."

Kirk Sharp, Long Beach's School Board president, talked about what the Pennsylvania students' efforts meant to their Mississippi counterparts. As he spoke, destruction continued to unfold through the bus windows.

"You're bringing them hope, distraction, a sense of normal," Sharp said. "This is their normal right now. That's why your coming is so significant. You're giving them a sense of the future."

Sharp saw the distress on the students' faces and said: "Just remember, it's only stuff. As long as we've got our health, we'll be able to rebuild, and that's what's going on right now."

When students from the three high schools gathered Sunday morning, it marked the beginning of friendships that will last much longer than Hurricane Katrina's impact.

"Most of the kids here have already formed friendships," Pennsylvania sophomore Abi Mentzer said, "and we want to keep up with them."

Teacher Matt Cooper, who helped coordinate the homecoming plans, said this experience will teach his students something they couldn't learn in a classroom.

"It's all trying to put yourselves in someone else's shoes," he said. "This was an inconvenience of joy for them. They're seeing they can make a big, big difference."

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(Scallan reports for The (Biloxi) Sun Herald. Anita Lee of The Sun Herald contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-STORMS-HOMECOMING

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