GULFPORT, MISS. — Pat Smith might not have lived to realize his dream of providing homes to victims of Katrina, but his family and volunteers who traveled here from Lexington, Ky., felt his presence this week as they worked to complete the homes.
"He's here," Smith's wife, Jean, said as she worked on an outdoor shed. "He would be very excited that these people will be in their homes by Christmas."
Jackie Wilson and her family are excited, too. Wilson lost her home near Memorial Hospital in Hurricane Katrina and since has been living in a FEMA trailer with her son and daughter and six grandchildren.
Wilson took vacation this week to help with the homes, and said she is grateful for Smith's vision and dedication.
"It's just unbelievable," she said. "I can't fathom them giving up their lives to come help us."
Smith had been involved with Habitat for Humanity for nearly 20 years and had traveled all over the world to build homes, serving on the International Board of Directors, the U.S. Council and the board of directors in Lexington. The project to build 13 Habitat for Humanity homes on South Carolina Avenue in Gulfport kicked off in June and, shortly after that, Smith began planning a Thanksgiving trip to South Mississippi to finish them; he started recruiting friends and family to help.
Smith was one of 49 people killed Aug. 27 when Comair Flight 5191 crashed as it took off from Blue Grass Airport. He was headed for Gulfport to work on the homes and participate in ceremonies marking the first anniversary of the killer storm.
Smith's friends and family knew immediately they would continue with his work to build homes for Gulfport residents who lost theirs in the hurricane.
"Before Pat passed, he had planted the seed in our minds," said Steve Combs, Smith's son-in-law. "He had a vision of it. After the accident, we were talking about Thanksgiving and carrying this project forward. We had a meeting about a week later, and everybody was on board."
About 100 adults and 25 children, including Smith's family, traveled to Gulfport last weekend to finish the project on South Carolina Avenue. They will work a half-day today, and then will share Thanksgiving dinner with other volunteers and residents at Yankie Stadium in Biloxi.
Cars lined the narrow street this week as the volunteers put up frames, installed Sheetrock and cut wood.
The houses will be dedicated Dec. 9, and former President Jimmy Carter will attend the ceremony.
Chris Monforton, executive director of Habitat for Humanity in Harrison County, Miss., knew Smith and said his family's work was a tribute to all he stood for.
"It's a tremendous memorial and a testament to what volunteerism meant to him," Monforton said.
Members of Smith's family said they didn't mind giving up their holiday to work on the houses, because it's what he would have wanted.
Smith's son Brian said this is what Thanksgiving is all about.
"I can guarantee I will remember what I did for Thanksgiving in 2006," he said.
Jean Smith said she hesitated at first when her husband approached her about spending Thanksgiving building houses.
"I know he would have talked me into it," she said.
She added that although the holidays are difficult without Pat, she's glad her husband's dream will be realized.
"This week has been the first enjoyable thing I've done since August," she said. "It's been a lot of fun."
Her son-in-law agreed.
"If there's anything good that came from the accident it's that it planted seeds and encouraged others to help," Combs said. "I think at the end of the day, that's what Pat was all about."