Alternative Spring Breaking in the Big Easy
Social Media Director
On Friday, March 8, 16 Keene State College students packed up four vehicles and piled, in pillows, blankets and all, to embark on their journey to New Orleans, La. A combined 27 hours later, multiple pit stops and an overnight stay in Knoxville, Tenn., the 16 girls made it to what they called home for the next week, a four-bedroom hostel.
Monday morning’s 5:30 a.m. alarm rolled around quickly as the group got ready for orientation with the organization they would be working with for the week, The United Saints Recovery Project.
Site Supervisor Matthew Beben explained that United Saints as a group that works with volunteers to provide disadvantaged homeowners that can’t afford contractors or professionals.
“We provide the work free of labor costs and we either fundraise for materials or the homeowners find a way to provide the material,” Beben said, “Labor costs is about 60 percent of a construction budget so we are saving them a great deal of money.”
The week that KSC students were in New Orleans, La. happened to fall on one of the biggest volunteering projects of the year, which the United Saints was part of, the Eight Days of Hope Organization.
Eight Days of Hope organized over 2,500 volunteers from 43 states to work on approximately 350 homes in La Place, La. The homes in La Place were hit the hardest by recent Hurricane Isaac.
The KSC students split up to work on various projects for the first three days of the week with different schools and Site Supervisors from the United Saints.
The two main projects students worked on in La Place was demolition and mold remediation in one home and digging a trench around another home to help avoid flooding for future storms. The countless hours of labor went by fast as students bonded with each other, other volunteers and homeowners.
Senior Victoria Haddad was touched by the experience to work with homeowners.
“Even though I was doing things for homeowners physically, painting, building, cleaning, they were reinforcing back to us all of the reasons why we do things like this,” Haddad said, “It’s so humbling to see when people care for each other, good things can happen to them, even through devastating situations like [Hurricanes] Katrina and Isaac.”
While most of the KSC group was working with Eight Days of Hope, some were working on homes specifically with the United Saints in New Orleans affected by Hurricane Katrina. One group worked on a home of an 81-year-old man, Mr. David, whose home was covered in mold from the storm.
KSC students assisted in the sheetrocking, mudding and taping of rooms in his home. Another group began painting the exterior of Miss Jessie’s home, a calm peach color she took threedays to decide on.
The group that was working with Eight Days of Hope ended around day three, Wednesday, as they did the initial work and then professionals were brought in to do the more intricate details like roofing and sheet rocking.
They then either joined the painting crew at Miss Jessie’s home or gardened with “Macon Fry the Garden Guy,” a farmer who helped in the development of the Hollygrove Market and Farm garden space where they grow and sell fresh produce for the city.
The volunteers did experience a lot of work, but that didn’t mean there was no time for fun. As they walked through the streets of downtown New Orleans, they embraced the culture with open minds.
Co-leader of the trip senior Erin Zoellick said the culture was an eye-opener for her and members of the group.
“It was amazing to see another culture built into our country’s culture as a whole and to see differences between people there, and people in our hometowns,” Zoellick said.
Whether it was enjoying the food on Frenchmen Street, the shops on Magazine Street, or the masks and eccentric costumes of Bourbon Street, each area of town had something special to it for the group of New Englanders to enjoy.
Another area of exploration that intrigued the group was the Lower Ninth Ward, an area of New Orleans that was hit the hardest during Hurricane Katrina due to the levees breaking and allowing water to damage and completely wipe out homes.
As the group drove through the area, the sight of boarded up homes, empty lots, spray painted windows with the letters “R.I.P.” and abandoned belongings left chills and aches in each person’s heart.
For sophomore Jessica French it was intense to see that after seven years the area is still suffering.
“If I lived in that neighborhood I would not be able to constantly drive by the cement stairs that once was my door step and now leads to nothing,” French said.
By the end of the week the students were talking about plans to come back to New Orleans and how hard it was to leave.
The area has so much devastation to it that it hurts to have to look the other way sometimes because the group couldn’t help everyone there, as much as they wanted to.
While enjoying spring break in a tropical location is fun and relaxing, being a part of the bigger picture was something that left no regrets for the trip that went to New Orleans.
“There is something to be said for the people who volunteer their time to help people that they don’t know, just because they want to. I can’t imagine the work that we as citizens could accomplish if everyone was willing to donate a week of their time,” Zoellick said.
French agreed saying, “Each ASB trip is a learning experience you will never forget. It is completely worth it in every single way.”
The NOLA group may have helped make changes to improve New Orleans, but New Orleans also changed the lives of each member of the group, #WhenInNOLA.