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Spring break a time to help

College students across the nation are descending on the Gulf Coast over their spring breaks to help the thousands of families still recovering from the devastating hurricanes of 2005.

BY HEATHER MOYER | PORT ARTHUR, Texas | March 21, 2007

College students across the nation are descending on the Gulf Coast over their spring breaks to help the thousands of families still recovering from the devastating hurricanes of 2005.

Long-term disaster recovery agencies along the Gulf Coast are receiving the groups through March and April as students forgo the traditional spring break of partying at the beach. Instead, thousands of students are picking up debris, putting up drywall, painting and whatever else is needed to get affected families back into their homes.

For students such as Trinity Christian College's Collin Barnes, volunteering to help was something he just had to do.

"I'd never been on a mission trip before, but it's always been something I wanted to do," said Barnes, a freshman studying English and history at the Palos Heights, Ill., school. "I just saw the opportunity and so I did it, and I'm really glad I did."

Barnes is part of a team from the school working on homes that were damaged by Hurricane Rita in Port Arthur, Texas. The group is spending a week in the town, painting homes and doing other chores.

Bethany VandeHey, a senior elementary education major at Trinity Christian, said she joined the group because she wanted to be part of a bigger cause.

"We're so isolated (in Illinois) from some of the disasters that happen," she said. "This is a great way to be part of the U.S., and to be able to serve alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ. We're helping those who have been forgotten."

She said college students too often are only focused on their studies and what is around them. Trips such as the one to Texas allow students to be part of a bigger society, she said.

For the people that the Trinity College crew is helping, the lingering needs are still great 18 months after Hurricane Rita.

"We're focusing on a fairly narrow area here in Port Arthur - it's a very depressed area we were asked to work in," said the Rev. Bernard Scrogin, state coordinator for disaster response in Texas and Louisiana for Lutheran Services of the South (LSS). "We have thousands of homes here that need repair, and some have families still living in them even though the homes are not livable."

Louis May, volunteer coordinator for LSS, said the enthusiasm of the college students was contagious.

"They all have such great attitudes and they're coming down here because they want to," May said. "It shows in their work. All of them are cooperative and will do anything you ask. It's been a great experience."

Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR) held its "What a Relief!" alternative spring break program this year after a successful first run last year. The program helps connect college groups with disaster recovery agencies in need.

"We worked with 34 different campuses this year and have had somewhere around 800 students," said Michael Nevergall, LDR's associate for program interpretation.

Nevergall said that number includes only those who went through LDR. Other college groups, he noted, called up Lutheran-related agencies on their own to organize trips.

In addition to Trinity Christian in Texas, LDR had four groups in Mississippi and one in Louisiana.

Nevergall said LDR was also encouraging groups to help with tornado relief in Alabama and Georgia, as well as with agencies responding to the Groundhog Day tornadoes and the 2004/2005 hurricane seasons in Florida.

Students from Connecticut's Fairfield University and Fairfield College Preparatory School recently spent more than a week on the Gulf Coast both working and using part of the trip as a different type of educational experience.

"For the first three days, we were at Loyola University in New Orleans for a teach-in," said Fairfield University student Meghan Popick. "The purpose was to discuss issues of poverty and racism and how those affected the (Hurricane) Katrina relief."

The teach-in included students from Jesuit universities nationwide.

"It really inspired me," said Popick, a senior biology major at Fairfield. "I know there's so many other people out there who are invested in making their areas and the world a better place. It was uplifting to know so many wanted to make a difference."

After the teach-in, students spent five days doing hurricane relief work with the Habitat for Humanity chapter in Kiln, Miss. The team spent the week cleaning up yards, building a wheelchair ramp for a family home and then installing drywall and insulation in another home.

Popick said that she was sorry her team couldn't do more work, but that it might have had another purpose for being there as well.

"Everyone we talked to wanted to tell us their stories, and I felt like that was more powerful," she said. "People just wanted to talk and it was nice for us to be the ears for them to talk to."

The Fairfield Prep students spent their work days gutting homes in New Orleans.

"We had to wear full body suits because the mold was so terrible in all these houses," said Mike Miles, a junior at the high school. "We had to be completely protected. Gutting the house involved taking out the tiling, all the drywall, pulling out rusted nails and spraying the house down to get rid of leftover mold contamination."

Miles said the students gutted two homes, and even though there were many left to do, he felt good about what was accomplished.

"It was a really good experience," he said. "I felt like I accomplished a lot. I'd definitely do this again."

College administrators said they hope the students were not only able to contribute during their work weeks, but that they were able to gain a different perspective on their impact on the world.

"The purpose of an alternative break program in general is to build reciprocal relationships in which the needs of a community agency are met and the students also have a chance for self-exploration, education and personal growth," said Lorelei Esbenshade, associate director of the community service learning program at James Madison University (JMU) in Harrisonburg, Va.

Esbenshade helps plan similar alternative spring break trips, as well as trips during the university's free week between the end of the spring semester and the beginning of the school's May class session.

"The ultimate goal is that through these experiences, those who go will really become engaged in life-long learning and civic engagement," she said. "They'll get a sense of the world outside their community and bring it back with them. Also, it's not that we go out and ignore where we live, but sometimes it takes getting out of your comfort zone and being part of the change.

"For the Gulf Coast region, seeing the need and being part of the solution is very important, as is keeping the message alive and coming back to say that all this is still going on," she said.

JMU's community service learning program and several other school organizations have planned Gulf Coast disaster relief trips for the past two years. The most recent trip included 10 students traveling to New Orleans in early March. Participants in the May trip will also go to St. Bernard Parish to work with the local Habitat for Humanity partnership.

Esbenshade said that college students are often wrongly portrayed as lazy or only interested in partying over spring break.

"The students who sign up for this trip also do pre-trip educational and team-building meetings. They're paying to go. They're passionate, excited and engaged, and they often come back pushing for more. The students across campus have even done fund-raisers to buy supplies and tools. You see that good side of college students that's full of idealism, energy and optimism - as well as a critical eye in asking 'why?' I think that's a really good combination."

VandeHey of Trinity Christian College enjoyed her past disaster relief work trips so much that she helped organize the one this year.

"I love seeing the results," she explained.

"I see ten-fold the results," she said. "I see fellowship, creating relationships with people down there and with each other. We bring it back to school with us. We're working together for this greater purpose. It's cool, too, to have it just change our perspective. It gives you a broader perspective."

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More links on Hurricanes


Related Links:

Lutheran Social Services of the South

Trinity Christian College

Fairfield University

James Madison University Community Service Learning Program

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