The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

New Orleans Service Trip 2010

By Hazel Schaeffer

Hurricane Katrina reduced the densely populated neighborhoods of the New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward to open fields, concrete stairs, and house foundations. Perhaps even more shocking, five years after the disaster, on many blocks where houses do still stand, less then a handful of people have returned to live.Over spring break Macalester helped send 24 students and four staff members to New Orleans. It was not with the intention of having them flash strangers for beads on Bourbon Street as part of some retribution for the college’s limited social life. Macalester has sent students to New Orleans for an alternative spring break service trip since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

The trip was organized through the Civic Engagement Center for the Bonner program, a national program that combines academic work, civic engagement, and financial aid for students. The trip was designed to meet the program’s component of an annual week long service trip.

Bonner community scholars agree to participate for four years, including ten hours a week of volunteering and one summer of 280 hours.

The trip was comprised of 16 Bonner freshman, three sophomores, one junior, four seniors and four Bonnor staff members.

In New Orleans the students broke up and provided service in four different areas: neighborhoods and homeowners, environmental sustainability, schools and prisons, and

refugees and immigrants.

Emma Buechs ’13, a Bonner student, participated in the neighborhoods and homeowners group, helping make communities more of a cohesive, beautiful place to return to. Her group worked with a non-profit grass roots organization Green Project which, according to Rachel Adler ’12, “salvages parts of homes like wood, doors, windows, bathtubs, appliances, recycles or cleans them up and sell it at a fraction of the cost.”

Contrary to the common perception of volunteering in New Orleans, Macalester students took apart houses instead of building them. They also helped clean an area so that it could become a community space that when completed will included bike paths and volleyball courts.

Buechs was amazed that after five years after all the relief work, she encountered so much debris and homes that “hadn’t been touched yet.” She said she expected to be doing community and maintenance work assuming the physical work would already be done.

Buechs said this was unfortunate because, “the priority should be placed on community building and the mental health of people that experienced these tragedies.” Still, she said she understood the necessity of doing “mundane” work.

“The professionals [we worked with] know what needs to be done . Others would be exhausting themselves or [the trash and debris] would stay there if we didn’t,” Buechs said.

Buechs and Adler also made a real effort to have conversations with the community members whose neighborhoods they were trying to help fix.

“I consider simply listening [to be] service work,” Buechs said.

Buechs said she was worried about being disrespectful and wanted the New Orleanians to understand.

“I’m going to get to know you as a person and hear your stories, it’s not just something to put on my resume,” she said.

The students visited the badly damaged Lower Ninth Ward, where houses are being built through the Make It Right Foundation, spearheaded by Brad Pitt.

Adler noted that the students struggled with the roles of being both active community members and tourists, whom they tried to distance themselves from.

Buechs she said she was upset to see that “the homes and people are on exhibit” in the Lower Ninth Ward, an area frequented by many tourists.

However, one resident had a different take and pointed out that some of those tourists, including Brad Pitt, did come back and make a difference, and in any case, they were bringing much needed money into the city.

The students also kept journals on the trip.

“I keep looking at the X’s on houses [that FEMA drew], checking the right quadrants for death count and praying I don’t see something other than a zero. There are so many houses with the X’s still visible, and even on those that have been clearly been restored. What do these mean for the home owners?,” Adler wrote in her journal on March 15, 2010.

Buechs and Alder said they really enjoyed their non-service work as well. They went to Bourbon Street in the French Quarter on St. Patrick’s day, in a city, that unlike St. Paul, has other things to worry about than enforcing underage drinking laws.

Alder said she was impressed by “people’s positive attitudes which is pretty astonishing considering what they’ve been through and have to see everyday.”

Their spirit is so contagious, so bright and colorful. They wanted to make sure we were okay and having a good time even though we were there to help them,” Buechs said.

Each student paid only $32 for the entire trip, including airfare, food and lodging.

The trip was funded through grants from the college and the national Bonner Foundation and fundraising. Students organized an online auction open to Macalester faculty and staff. Each student selected for the trip offered three services. Adler offered to cook a meal for a family, take a family portrait, and babysit for ten hours.

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