By Shannon Meadows
Fourteen boys and girls from the Picayune area will be making their television debut on MTV’s “The Real World” to share their stories of loss, hope, and recovery concerning Hurricane Katrina.
MTV approached Terri Bailey, a local social worker and author, to hand-select ten boys and ten girls to interview for the chance to be on the show and win an all-expenses-paid trip to Outward Bound in Denver, Colorado for five days and four nights. Outward Bound is a camp where youth, adults, work groups and other organizations can hone both group and individual skills. The boys’ trip is scheduled for mid-July, while the girls’ trip is scheduled for the first week of August.
Bailey said, “Here in Picayune, we are surrounded by some exceptionally good kids. While all teenagers confront peer pressure and make adolescent mistakes, some become uncompromising in their love for God and heroic in their actions for others. As a social worker here in Picayune, I’ve been amazed and inspired by the sheer number of good and decent teenagers of this nature. The kids that were picked to interview for the show were not only affected by Katrina, but were also kids who gave selflessly to restore the community.”
However, when Bailey was first contacted by Dr. Keith Taylor of Modest Needs and “The Real World” producers, she had heard of the questionable nature of the show and was not sure if it was a good idea to send the children to the camp, where cast members from “The Real World” would be acting as their counselors for the duration of the trip. However, Bailey soon realized that these amazing children had the ability to bring a new, fresh view to MTV.
“It suddenly occurred to me the opportunity we had to change the face of MTV, if only by one episode. The world should be afforded the opportunity to be inspired by these kids who can change it and leave it a better place for those who follow,” Bailey said.
The children chosen to compete for entry on the show were Dustin Martinez, Ashley Martinez, Amanda Koehn, Ashley Ourso, Demond Torregano, Matthew Rester, Kristen Peterson, Ashlen Bissell, Courtney Tierce, Tyron Bell, Chris Douglass, Abby Graham, Crystel Shultz, and seven other children who were away attending church camp.
The children waited anxiously for their turn to enter the interview room. They chatted loudly amongst themselves, laughing and joking and sharing stories.
All of the children were deeply affected by the hurricane in one way or another. Ashley Ourso’s home in St. Bernard, Louisiana, was flooded with seven feet of water during the deadly storm.
“It’s hard knowing that you can’t go back. You don’t know where your friends and family are or if you’ll ever see some of them again. It’s hard to pick things back up and keep moving forward when all you want to do is go home,” Ourso said.
Demond Torregano, of Slidell, described to the other teens how his home was completely destroyed by the hurricane.
“We lost everything we had worked so hard for. People just don’t understand how difficult it is because I still don’t know where some of my friends and family are. It’s awful to think that someone I care about might be dead because of Katrina,” Torregano said.
And Ourso and Torregano were not the only ones who felt physically and emotionally devastated by the hurricane. Amanda Koehn’s house, also in Louisiana, flooded with water and oil.
“Nobody deserves to go through something like this,” Koehn said.
Brother and sister Dustin and Ashley Martinez, of Picayune, agreed with Koehn.
“It only happened a year ago, but it feels like it was just yesterday. It’s so unreal how quickly things can change,” Dustin Martinez said.
“It’s really hard and it makes you want to cry, but it’s just too painful to face all of the emotions this experience made us feel,” Ashley Martinez said.
Although some of the children were from Louisiana, they all relocated to the Picayune area at some point or other after the hurricane. However, all are still struggling to recover from the disaster.
Courtney Tierce, of Carriere, told her peers she was having difficulty getting her life back to normal again.
“It’s like we’ve had to create a ‘new normal’ that fits this point of our lives we’re going through. Things will never go back to normal as we knew it. But they can get back to a ‘new normal’ where we expect, hope, and want different things,” Tierce said.
Kristen Peterson, of DeKalb, agreed that, after the hurricane, people expected Louisiana and Mississippi to instantly recover and rebuild.
“I know it’s been almost a year since the hurricane, but to us it seems like it was only months ago,” Peterson said.
“More like weeks ago,” said Matthew Rester, also of DeKalb.
However, despite the deeply embedded turmoil these children are still facing, they all agreed that good things also came from the hurricane, like new friends, closer familial bonds and community unity.
“It almost seems like we all became one big, dysfunctional family,” Rester said.
“Yeah. I met people I lived by that I never even really knew until after the hurricane. When you don’t have power and there’s no t.v. or phones, you have a lot of extra time on your hands to get to know the people around you,” Tierce said.
And several of the children also grew to appreciate their families even more after the hurricane.
“I went to help my aunt with her house after the hurricane. I just spent all of my time with my family and we got really tight,” Chris Douglass, of Poplarville, said.
Abby Graham, of Picayune, said she grew close to people in her community, even complete strangers.
“After the hurricane, I worked at the relief center at my church. We had people live with us and we spent our time passing out supplies to people in the community. I met so many people in Picayune I didn’t know before,” Graham said.
It also opened these children’s eyes to the plight of others.
“Before the hurricane, we only cared about our lives, our families, our friends. After the hurricane, you really realized how much every one suffered,” said Tyron Bell, of Picayune.
“Yeah, it was like we were all brought together by the pain and destruction. For the first time, everyone was the same. You cared about everyone and not just yourself,” said Ashlen Bissell, of Diamondhead.
And what do these courageous, headstrong children want the world to know when their stories are broadcast on national television?
“I would really like for people to know that this isn’t over for us. The pain and hurt is still here and it won’t go away. People don’t know what we went through and what it was like for us. I would really like for us to remind them of that,” said Tierce, “And I want people to know that we made it through Katrina. We survived. We’re strong. And our story will go on and on forever.”