Spring break, for many students, is traditionally spent relaxing on the beach or exploring a foreign city, but this year six HGSE master's students and a Tufts graduate student used their spring breaks to give back to those still affected by the damage of Hurricane Katrina. Jamil Gilliam, Sharon Khoo, Kimberly Spector, Kate Levine, Khalilah Ummah, Julia Marinescu, and Tufts student Laura Jasinski traveled to New Orleans to volunteer for a week, assisting with various rebuilding efforts in the city.
Gilliam, VP of service and outreach for the Student Government Association (SGA), organized the trip, which was funded in part by the SGA. Harvard Square hardware store Dickson Brothers and the Watertown Home Depot both donated tools and supplies to the group.
In New Orleans, the group volunteered with the United Saints First Street Project in the central city area. Working every day from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., they helped paint, roof, and tile homes that had been damaged both by Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Gustav in 2008. On the last day of their trip, they had an opportunity to travel to the Lower Ninth Ward and see the levees. "A lot of the houses were still in the same state [as they were in 2005]," Gilliam says. "Had I not known, I would have thought the storm was a year and a half ago."
Overall, it was an eye-opening experience for those who had the opportunity to go. "I had never seen a place like New Orleans," says Spector. "A place that has so much to offer culturally, but where so many people suffer on a daily basis; a place where wealth and poverty collide so visibly."
The residents, the students say, are extremely resilient and grateful, despite the work that still needs to be done four years later. "As a non-American participant, I saw how Americans endeavor to help one another, especially in times of natural crises," observes Khoo, who is from Singapore.
"Seeing the relationships between the members of the United Saints and the individuals that they were assisting was inspiring in that it showed that, while Katrina had the power to destroy so many homes, buildings, and lives, it also brought people together that wouldn't otherwise have anything in common," says Jasinski. The trip was also an opportunity for the HGSE students, who did not know one another previously, to come together for a shared cause.
Gilliam hopes that this will be the first of many alternative spring break trips organized by the SGA. "Even though it didn't directly involve working in a school, children's communities and what they see everyday has an impact on what their experiences are, so I think, on a larger scale, this kind of work has far-reaching implications," she says.
All of the students agree that the experience was extremely powerful and that there is a lot more work to be done in New Orleans. "The trip has left me with an even deeper sense of gratitude for the opportunities I have gotten and an even stronger desire to work on helping other people realize more opportunities in their lives," says Marinescu.