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Rebuilding hope in Mississippi Area father, son in Tupelo, organize army of volunteers to refurbish storm-stricken homes

Stephen A. Tybor Jr. wasn't thinking big when he called his son in Mississippi a couple of months ago to say he wanted to help with the response to Hurricane Katrina.

Tybor, a Niagara County resident and building supply wholesaler, figured he and several other volunteers could make at least a small difference by refurbishing the interiors of a few storm-ravaged homes.

As of today, an army of some 600 volunteers from 37 states and three countries is busy in Waveland, Bay St. Louis and Picayune, Miss., installing new electrical wiring, insulation and drywall in 35 homes in a project that has come to be known as "Eight Days of Hope."

When the eight days are over, they say as many as 100 homes will be restored, and there will be that much less human misery.

Vice President Cheney's office has called to encourage the volunteers, President Bush has sent a letter of thanks, CNN has plans to do a special on the project, and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's office has described the effort as the biggest volunteer relief undertaking in his state since Katrina struck in August, organizers say.

And it all started with one good intention.

Stephen A. Tybor III said his father's phone call in October came just at the right moment. The younger Tybor, raised in Pendleton and North Buffalo, said he knew he could not continue to sit in his comfortable home in Tupelo, Miss. -- four hours from the Gulf Coast -- and watch TV images of the hurricane's devastation.

"My dad got my head spinning when he called me to say he thought it would be neat if he and five or six other guys came down to do some volunteer work," the son said Sunday in a telephone interview from the site of one of the homes being renovated.

Tybor, who followed in his father's footsteps selling building material, contacted a Christian radio station network and arranged to do a 10-minute interview that wound up being carried on 190 stations across the country.

When the interview was over, the network announced it was donating $100,000 to the project. But that was only the start.

The wave of generosity swelled.

Contributions of cash, building supplies and furniture began pouring in, along with commitments from electricians, drywall workers and others eager to help, the younger Tybor said.

And yet it was hardly enough.

The father, who in the last three decades has done missionary work throughout South America and in Appalachia, says the devastation -- more than three months after the storm -- is hard to comprehend unless it is seen firsthand.

"I feel like I'm in Nicaragua. I can't believe this is the United States. You've got cars up in trees," the elder Tybor said. "When we were flying into Gulfport, more than half the homes had blue tarpaulins on the roofs because the hurricane had blown away the roofs."

The country's attention, he said, focused on New Orleans because of the levee failures, but it was the Mississippi coast that bore the brunt of the actual hurricane.

Joyce Gugino, a North Buffalo hairdresser, shares his opinion.

One of the dozen volunteers who traveled from the Buffalo Niagara region with the elder Tybor, Gugino says she rode into the devastated region with her mouth dropped open.

"But this is not about us down here working," she said during a brief phone conversation when pausing from installing insulation. "This is about the people who live here and who have suffered through this."

The Tybors say that though their phone conversation started the ball rolling, they believe divine intervention allowed it to mushroom into a full-scale mission of mercy.

Tears often greet the volunteers when they arrive at the damaged homes.

"One woman was standing in her driveway and turned to her family and cried, 'They're here, they're here. All I wanted was to be back in my home for Christmas, and it looks like I will,' " the younger Tybor said.

Breaking down himself, the younger Tybor said that when he arrived at another home, he put his arm around a 14-year-old boy named Greg Harvey and asked him what he wanted for Christmas.

The teenager answered that he wished he had his fishing pole back.

"I can't guarantee a lot in life," the younger Tybor said, "but I can guarantee that Greg will have his home back, and he'll have the best fishing pole you can buy."

Donations to the project can be mailed to Eight Days of Hope, P.O. Box 612 Verona, MS 38879, or made online at the project's Web page, wwww.eightdaysofhope.com.

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com

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