Since 2006, I have worked with three different relief operations along the Gulf Coast. Habitat for Humanity needs no introduction. They are the gold standard for building affordable housing for those in need. In 2006, in the wake of the storm, they focused on gutting homes (left). A year later, I joined UNH students working with Habitat on constructing new homes in the Upper Ninth Ward, in and around the Musicians’ Village. In 2008, my students and I worked with Katrina Relief, a small agency operating in and around Waveland, Mississippi. They are a jack-of all-trades organization that contributes much-needed manpower to a hard-hit, yet out of the way section of coastal Mississippi. Then last year, we moved back into New Orleans to work with Operation Helping Hands.

Operation Helping Hands coordinates volunteers for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. They did not exist prior to Katrina, but in the aftermath of the tempest, the Archdiocese fielded thousands of call from people who wanted to serve on behalf of the people of New Orleans. And from the time the waters began to recede from the city, Operation Helping Hands has hosted over 22,500 volunteers. And those volunteers have put in nearly two-thirds of a million volunteer hours. In the process, these volunteers have gutted nearly 2,000 homes. They have built 140 homes with 21 underway. And they have painted 295 additional homes. And my students were an active and involved part of that.

Our experience with Operation Helping Hands was a gift. The food was OK, the housing over in Jefferson Parish was adequate, but the work experience was exquisite. The team leaders were young, energetic and accessible to student volunteers. The work was meaningful and tied to New Orleans neighborhoods. Students came away, not only with a sense of accomplishment, but with the realization that they could exhibit the same level of selflessness as the OHH leaders once they graduate from college.

That is: it was a great introduction to New Orleans; a fine example of service learning; and a tangible model of what direction one may take after graduation. To me, that was the gift to us of working with Operation Helping Hands.

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