BILOXI, Miss. -- When Ocean Springs native Laura Mason looks in her closet before going towork, she actually smiles. The action itself is not unusual. But it took Mason time to get to this point. She remembers her old closet full of clothes, shoes, and purses that were washed away by Katrina. The thought of that loss used to bring her down but now she uses her loss to help others.
"I think I can relate to everyone. I lost everything. We lost our house," said Mason. "It was hard at the time but I'm here. I went through it just like everyone else."
Mason works as a Voluntary Agency Liaison (VAL) for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). She coordinates with the JMAR long term recovery committee in Jefferson Davis and Marion counties, and the Southwest Mississippi Recovery Network, the long term recovery committee covering Lincoln, Lawrence, Walthall, Amite and Pike counties. Mason also assists FEMA Housing Advisors by referring families with unmet needs to volunteer agency caseworkers.
Mason compares her work as a VAL to reading a good book; she wants to know the ending. It drives her to finish what she's started. "Even if you meet someone for five minutes, you want to make sure they have every resource to meet the need that was unmet. It's just rewarding all over."
Long before Katrina, Mason volunteered at Biloxi Regional Hospital and the local library. She also mentored children in the Starkville School District while attending Mississippi State University. After receiving a degree in school counseling, she took her first job as an advertising and sales specialist at the Mississippi Press newspaper's office in Ocean Springs. Katrina severely damaged two of the newspaper's offices and forced the Ocean Springs office to close. Mason and co-workers rode a daily shuttle bus to the neighboring Mobile Register, an experience she doesn't recall fondly.
"It was tiring and draining. We'd ride on the bus to go home, but I didn't have a home to go home to," said Mason.
In March 2006, she followed the advice of former co-worker and became a FEMA VAL.
"He just kept saying how great the people were and how much I would love the job," said Mason. "And I do. Here, there's people in much worse situations than I was but I can relate. I've always been compassionate - especially to kids - but now I can help everyone."
Mason may be new to FEMA but she gives her job and her committees 100 percent.
"Laura Mason seems to have a wonderful grasp of the long term recovery committees and their functions as they relate to the community," said Steven Stubblefield, community recovery specialist for the American Red Cross Hurricane Recovery Program. "She relates to people well and always has a smile on her face. When questions arise regarding FEMA, if she doesn't already know the answer, she offers much assurance that she will find the answers."
While Mason admires all of the organizations she works with to serve the Coast, she particularly respects the efforts of everyday citizens making a difference.
"It's amazing to see the many people who are willing to help. Retired people from the north jump in their campers to come down here to work and help. Kids on spring break could be on a cruise but they're here with their tools."
Mason still volunteers when she can: she served on the planning committee for the Kaboom! playground built in Ocean Springs. She currently works with the youth program in her church, St. Elizabeth's in Ocean Springs. But in other areas of her life, she is the first to admit, what a difference nearly two years makes.
"If you had asked me this right after the storm, I never could've seen it. I didn't think I would be here," said Mason. "I lost everything but I look in my closet and I don't say 'oh I miss those shoes or I miss that purse.' You kind of forget wh...