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35 From Campus Take Spring Break in New Orleans

Published: May 15, 2009

Even before going to New Orleans on an Alternative Spring Break, CSULB senior Nadine Henley knew she was heading to a truly devastated area where visitors’ emotions can often get the best of them when they see the remaining destruction left behind by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Still, she wasn’t completely prepared for what she saw and experienced on the week-long sojourn.

Henley was one of 35 students, faculty and staff from CSULB who made the trek to Louisiana. The group members did not use their Spring Break to hit the beach or the slopes, lay in the sun or just relax in preparation for the end-of-the-school-year push. Rather, they used their time off to help others, and they did it laying down a roof, putting up interior walls and working on exterior siding.

Photo by Michael Chan Yee
CSULB President F. King Alexander (r) lent his efforts to the spring break project.

“Hurricane Katrina hit the area nearly four years ago, but there were still so many abandoned homes and businesses. I thought the situation would be a little better by now,” said Henley, a senior sociology major who graduates this month. “To me, they (the empty homes and businesses) were a constant reminder to the people of the tragedy that they all went through.”

But it was the spirit of the people who returned to the devastated area and are working to rebuild their lives there that inspired Henley over the course of the week.

“It was amazing to see the people so full of life despite the hardships they are facing, and it was wonderful to hear the thanks and appreciation in person from the survivors of the area,” she explained. “Additionally, working alongside a survivor from one of the most hard-hit environments was phenomenal, just experiencing that underlying faith.”

This is the fourth straight year that CSULB students, faculty and staff have gone to Louisiana, but the first two years were trips to Lake Charles, La., an area in the southwest portion of the state that was devastated by Hurricane Rita. And for the second year in a row, CSULB President F. King Alexander joined the group later in the week for a couple days of “hammer time.”

The 2009 CSULB Alternative Spring Break team worked with Habitat for Humanity’s Collegiate Challenge Program, which provides opportunities for college students to spend a week building a house in partnership with Habitat for Humanity affiliates.

Arriving late in the afternoon on Sunday, the students received a tour of the greater New Orleans area on Monday – the good, the bad and the ugly — including the wards most devastated by Hurricane Katrina, the levees that gave way to the rising waters and, of course, the other more “touristy” sites of New Orleans such as Bourbon Street, the French Quarter, etc.

From Tuesday through Friday, the work day began at 7:30 a.m. and lasted to about 3:30 p.m. as the group worked on four homes in the Musicians’ Village area of New Orleans. Members of the group also worked two full days at the Habitat ReStore Store, unloading a dozen trucks of goods and materials and organizing all the merchandise in the store. The ReStores are retail outlets where quality used and surplus building materials are sold at a fraction of normal prices. Materials sold there are usually donated from building supply stores, contractors, demolition crews or from individuals who wish to show their support for Habitat. Proceeds from ReStores help local affiliates fund the construction of Habitat houses within the community.

The CSULB team was housed at Camp Hope in St. Bernard, La., which is about a 30-minute drive from downtown New Orleans. The camp is a converted school used by Habitat for Humanity as basic housing for volunteers. It provides a place to sleep, recreation space and three meals a day, including a bag lunch for each work day. Meals are provided daily by an AmeriCorps team. The rooms are divided by gender and are dormitory style, and each volunteer must bring his/her own bedding, sheets, pillows, blankets and/or sleeping bag.

To take part in the Alternative Spring Break, CSULB students were required to take a class, “Political Science Special Topics 493: Politics, Culture and Disaster.” Taught by Liberal Studies Professor Dan O’Connor, the course examines the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina and its impact on the Gulf Coast and the rest of the nation with a particular emphasis on the city of New Orleans.

The service-learning course was originally developed by Tim Caron, a CSULB English professor who has made three of the four Alternative Spring Break trips to Louisiana. He missed the trip two years ago because of the birth of his son. His wife continues to support his participation, and he missed his son’s birthday for the second year in a row while on this year’s trip. But, his reasons for going to Louisiana are easy to understand.

Photo by Michael Chan Yee
Liberal Studies’ chair Dan O’Connor works the saw.

“When I heard about the first trip four years ago, I knew that I had to tag along, and I began to work to insert myself into the trip. I felt compelled because I am from the state of Louisiana,” noted Caron, who earned his bachelor’s degree at Louisiana College in Pineville, La, and his master’s degree and Ph.D. at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. “This place has shaped who I am — my values, my culture. My most basic understanding of who I am is inextricably tied to this state. To not do something would have been shameful.”

And the Louisiana native, now a CSULB professor, had nothing but praise for the students who volunteered their time to make the trip.

“From the beginning, I was completely overwhelmed by our students at Cal State Long Beach. They are whip smart, compassionate, kind, caring, and they are great ambassadors. It’s really humbling to spend so much time with them each year and to see how hard-working they are on behalf of others,” Caron pointed out. “They are giving up one of a college student’s most valuable assets — their Spring Breaks — for the privilege of working for others, taking cold showers, and living in some pretty crowded conditions. I can’t really say enough about these young people and the service spirit that they all have in abundance.”

Henley, the senior sociology major, mentioned the cold showers, too, but in a much different context.

“The most important thing I took home with me from this experience is not to take anything for granted and to be the change I wish to see,” she said. “I found myself being grateful for our cold showers because, yes, they were ice cold constantly, but those in the storm didn’t even get to shower. And if they did get to bathe, they had the same cold experience I did only with a hose, if they could even find one, according to a man I worked alongside in the Habitat Restore Store.

“I also realized I need to be the change I wish to see because being an example to others shows that your act of kindness can be easily duplicated as long as it comes from the heart,” Henley added. “I realized that ordinary people can do extraordinary things like rebuild a home to restore hope in hearts of despair. These lessons will forever resonate with me.”