Special to The CS&T

“Mercy gonna be bringing hope to all of those in need
Using our skills and helping out where we’re called to be.”
– Operation Team Katrina rap song

PHILADELPHIA – For the fourth straight year, students from Mercy Vocational High School in the Nicetown section of Philadelphia spent their Easter vacation in the Gulf Coast of Mississippi helping victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Four years ago Mercy Vocational vice principal Catherine Glatts and school social worker Mary Terese Lopata were inspired to create the MVHS Operation Katrina Team.

“We had done service projects within the city but never across the country,” said spokesperson Marcella Strittmatter. Seven chaperones accompanied 20 students driving in three vans to Biloxi, Miss., in April. Their stay at a former convent was sponsored by the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

The private Love of Christ Foundation in Ijamsville, Md., has provided funding for the trips, along with student fundraisers. Beneficial Bank sponsored a new van this year.

The funding for next year’s trip has already gotten a big boost. That’s great news for the only four-year, co-ed Catholic vocational high school in the country.

A rap video of this year’s trip produced by MVHS music instructor Michael Cain was honored by True Hero Inc., with a $5,000 check for being the most viewed service video posted on from June 1-30.

The video received 3,129 hits and was seen in Thailand, Great Britain, Canada, Russia, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Netherlands and Italy. True Hero, according to its web site, grants cash awards to high school, college and qualified non-profit community youth organizations that sponsor service trips and volunteer activities for students.”

True Hero founder and CEO Mike Merriman presented the check at the school Aug. 31.

“School hadn’t started,” Strittmatter said. “We invited all the kids, even those that graduated. Mr. Merriman said he was proud of the fact we went year after year. The students give not only their hearts but their skills. They knew what they were doing.”

“Gettin’ work done in the hot ‘sippi sun
Painting houses, servin’ food, helpin’ everyone
From the Gulf of Mexico to the back bay
Mercy changin’ people’s lives, baby, all day.”

The MVHS video is a study in energy. Still photographs are interspersed with video of students working on homes – painting, dry walling, cooking. The rap lyrics – poignant and amusing at times – are performed with confidence and joy. The video runs 5 minutes, 22 seconds and can be found at

Music instructor Cain composed the rap beat and the students composed the lyrics, Strittmatter said. Cain recorded the song’s music separately, added the students’ lyrics and used his laptop computer for editing.

“I was teaching a music program … and one of the genres is hip-hop. I noticed that the kids were particularly knowledgeable and interested in this music. I wanted a good way to document the event. What a better way than to come up with a rap song?” he said.

Although the students had never sung or rapped before, they embraced the concept. “They are really talented kids,” said Cain, whose music background is classical and jazz. “They made it pretty clear they could handle it.”

Cain wanted the students “to take ownership” of the video and that’s why he required them to write their own lyrics.

“Some of these kids have endured hardships we only read about but they are still willing to put themselves out for a whole week doing hard labor for the benefit of someone else,” he said.

Cain said he was not aware that the video was being considered for an award. “I was pleasantly surprised,” he said.

Juniors and seniors were eligible for the Operation Katrina Team. “It was a self-nomination process. They had to fill out a questionnaire; for example, are you comfortable sleeping in a tent?” Strittmatter said. Following teacher feedback, chaperones selected the participating students.

Whitley Kels, a 17-year-old senior who is considering majoring in business at Neumann University next year, said the trip “was beyond expectations.”

“I wanted to step out of my comfort zone, go to a different state,” she said. “I wanted to develop new friendships at school with people I didn’t know before. The experience made me grateful for everything I have.”

An introduction on the MVHS web page for the project explains the unique status of the school: “Our students are no strangers to adversity; 86 percent of Mercy Vocational students are at-risk (defined by federal guidelines as those with learning disabilities, severe domestic disturbance, neighborhood violence, low family income, chronic illness, etc.) and 60 percent come from families living at or below the poverty level.”

The school boasts seven career and technical shops of focus. Graduates leave with a high school diploma and certification in their shop. MVHS is connected with another Mercy ministry, Mercy Housing and Human Development in Gulfport, Miss., which helps coordinate the service project.

“When the kids get there they are amazed so much work needs to be done,” Strittmatter said. “People are still living in FEMA trailers. The world has forgotten about them. The students come back and write reflection papers. Some are from pretty horrible neighborhoods in Philadelphia. They are shocked people are worse off than them. It’s the poor helping the poor.”

Jim Gauger is a freelance writer and a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish, Glenside.