It has occurred to me that I am preparing for my seventh spring break trip to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In 2006, I traveled down for the first time to work with FEMA and Habitat for Humanity. We spent a week gutting homes in St. Bernard Parish. I was with a group of a dozen strangers, but by the end of the week, we were a pretty close-knit bunch. And it was the most disgusting, most arduous, and strangely satisfying work I’ve ever done. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. From that time on, I have made a point to take photographs to record my experiences, as well as the the destruction, the progress or lack thereof, and the beauty of the Gulf Coast.
Inspired by this experience, I created an interdisciplinary course on New Orleans. It was offered for the first time in 2007. At the same time, I was working with the University of New Hampshire Alternative Break Challenge to send students to New Orleans during spring break. Seven of the students in my class accepted the challenge to spend their spring break in Louisisana. We worked with Habitat for Humanity constructing homes in and around Musicians’ Village in the Upper Ninth Ward. And they had the chance to absorb the local culture. I watched the students from my class and realized that they would have a distinct advantage over their fellow students…and I was right.
A year later, I petitioned to make the trip a part of the course and much to my surprise it was accepted. As a result, in 2008, I took the whole class of 20 honors students and six leaders to work in Waveland, MS, about 60 miles from New Orleans, In spite of high gas costs, we made the trip into the city almost daily. More importantly, the students had the opportunity to participate in the Mardi Gras Indian parade on Super Sunday.
In 2009, we began a three year run working with Operation Helping Hands, which is part of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. It was a good fit for us, as classes in 2009, 2010, and 2011 stayed in
Marrero, LA and had the chance to work in the Upper Ninth Ward, Gentilly, Treme, Marigny,and Carrollton sections of New Orleans. Alas, all good things must come to an end and we’ll miss our friends at Operation Helping Hands (especially Miss Kathy’s cooking), as they close shop to volunteers in 2012.
Next spring, we’ll move across Lake Pontchartrain to work with Habitat for Humanity in St. Tammany. And once again we’ll add to the gallery of UNH students who spent their spring break working for others.