Ali Perencevich: Fast Feet, Smart Brain, Big Heart

January 27, 2006

Few would argue that Ali Perencevich '06 has what it takes to be both an inspiring athlete on the Middlebury College women's lacrosse squad and neuroscience whiz in the classroom, but some may be surprised to discover that her heart outweighs even her own indefatigable spirit.

While most students were relaxing and recovering from exams over the holiday break, Ali and her older brother were headed for Biloxi, Mississippi, to join up with Hands On USA (HOUSA), a non-profit organization staffed by volunteers and dedicated to timely disaster response and relief.

"We started talking about it with a family friend at Thanksgiving, and from there the idea really took hold," says Ali. "I wanted to go right then and there, but my parents reminded me to take care of exams first."

Ali contacted HOUSA and made plans to be there with her brother for eight days immediately after Christmas. "They told us to pack work clothes and bring a sleeping bag. That's it. Once we arrived, they met us at the airport and took us to Biloxi where they gave us a place to sleep, fed us all our meals and put us to work."

That work, according to Ali, ranged from the hard labor of gutting houses and removing debris to lighter chores such as sorting donated clothes and walking orphaned animals at the local Humane Society. "No matter what your age or physical ability," says Ali, "there was something you could do to help." Typically, HOUSA organized workers into groups of 15. Whether swinging a crow bar, hauling an endless stream of household remains or bravely emptying a fridge that hadn't been opened in months, Ali got down and dirty with her fellow volunteers. "It was physically and emotionally draining," she recalls. "But so enormously satisfying. To be there, and actively involved in making something happen." As a life-long athlete, the experience for Ali was enjoyably reminiscent of being part of a team. "I really got to know the people I was working alongside, and we were all so focused on doing what needed to be done."

Biloxi, like so much of the south left in Katrina's wake, is far from any sense of normalcy. Many are still waiting for temporary trailer homes from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and volunteer groups like HOUSA remain busy with clean-up and removal rather than rebuilding. "We could go back next Christmas and there would still be plenty of work to do," says Ali.

For Ali, who grew up in Concord, New Hampshire, in a family that instilled volunteerism from an early age, this was her first trip south and the introduction to its heritage was memorable. "The sense of pride and strength of character among the people I met was overwhelming. Many had lived their whole lives in this area and wouldn't even consider the idea of not rebuilding. This was home for them." She recalled one 85-year-old man who had lived through six hurricanes, though Katrina was by far the worst, and he had no intention of leaving his coastal roots. On the day that Ali and her group were assigned to his neighborhood, the FEMA trailer he'd been promised finally arrived after a four-month wait. "It was a big day for him."

Not surprisingly, Ali hopes to become involved with the public service sector after graduation. "I just want to get out there and do something," she says, with the kind of realistic determination that lets you know she will. She's considering something in public health or community outreach, and perhaps medical school after that. Whatever avenue she pursues, she'll do so with characteristic gusto. As a neuroscience major and star athlete here at Middlebury, she has consistently been noted for her diligence and focus. "Ali is an especially perceptive student," said Professor of Biology Tom Root, who taught Ali in a recent neurobiology course. "She impressed me with her intellect, motivation, enthusiasm and disciplined work."

On the field, as tri-captain of the women's lacrosse team, she is no less driven. "Ali is a talented athlete, a quiet leader and a hard worker," says veteran lacrosse coach Missy Foote. "She rarely says a word in practice, just sets the tone by performing consistently at the highest level. Off the field, she is a leader because of her compassion, and her teammates recognize and respect that."

Even though she is settled back amidst her rigorous life at Middlebury, Ali has stayed in touch with her HOUSA friends and reports that they have "moved onto mold" - an insidious and deadly consequence of water-related disasters - and that they are still far from the rebuilding stage. She makes a point to take some time every day to recall her experiences in Biloxi and the ongoing hardships of those residents she knew so briefly. "We get so wrapped up in our lives here that it's easy to forget about what is going on for so many down south. Yet we are the fortunate ones who have the resources to do something. It's really just a matter of buying a ticket and going. Organizations like HOUSA would welcome you, and you'd be amazed at what you can contribute."

For more information about Hands On USA, as well as photographs and reports of their continued progress in Biloxi, visit www.handsonusa.org.

-- Blair Kloman --