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Students in Service

Hurricane Relief for Spring Break

While typical college students on spring break were tanning and partying under a sweltering tropical sun, a smaller group of students was engaging in much messier—and much more meaningful—activities. These “alternative spring breakers” soaked up rays, too—but they did so while painting and gutting houses and talking to survivors in the hurricane-ravaged areas of Pensacola, Florida, and New Orleans, Louisiana.

Forty-four students participated in the College’s two alternative spring break programs, both focused on relief efforts and sponsored by the Center for Student Leadership and Involvement. Many other students traveled to the region to work with outside relief organizations.

Photo courtesy of Adam Shepherd '08
Rebuilding a couple's home in Pensacola, Florida

Journalism and Spanish major Adam Shepherd ’08 returned to Florida for his second straight spring break. Last year he deconstructed houses. This year he helped paint the interior and exterior of an elderly couple’s house, which had been partially destroyed during Hurricane Ivan. Since Ivan hit, the homeowners have been living in a trailer on their property.

Of the Pensacola area Shepherd says, “It looked better than it did last year. The need wasn’t as visible this time.” Yet there is much rehabilitation still to be done. Since Hurricane Katrina, Shepherd notes, “Pensacola is kind of being forgotten about.” The homeowners he and the other students helped were, he says, “really surprised that we took our spring break to come help.” The 14 students who went to Florida even spent half of their one planned day off working on the house. Their extra labor made a difference: “We finished,” says Shepherd, “with three or four hours to spare on our last day.”

About 200 miles away in New Orleans, 30 IC students were engaged in similar projects: gutting houses, shoveling mud out of rooms, and even chain-sawing a tree off a roof. Each day they were given an assignment from the United Methodist Committee on Relief, which had received applications from homeowners in need of assistance.

Photos by Stephanie Elowson '08
New Orleans scenes: students masked and ready for a massive neighborhood cleanup operation; the IC group wearing beads given to them in gratitude by homeowners

One of the houses worked on by Stephanie Elowson ’08, a double-major in business administration and integrated marketing communications, was in Chalmette, a few miles southeast of the Lower Ninth Ward, the area hardest hit by Katrina. People’s belongings and remnants of houses were still scattered around the neighborhood. “[The house] hadn’t even been touched since Katrina,” Elowson says. “There were inches of mud soaked in oil from an oil spill. We saw the devastation as if it had just happened.”

At each house the group was able to meet the homeowners. “We felt like we really got to know these people,” Elowson says, “and we got an inside look at their lives.”

Photos courtesy of Stephanie Elowson '08
Stephanie Elowson '08 viewing the scene from what used to be someone's front steps and shoveling out mud saturated with oil and the contents of a bedroom

Tschika Mcbean ’07, a sociology major who went to New Orleans with the organization Katrina on the Ground, collaborated with a legal team to collect personal stories from hurricane survivors for a portfolio that will be distributed nationally. “They were stories you don’t hear or read in the news,” McBean says. “I think I cried every day.”

From 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. on most days, McBean traveled on buses and walked around neighborhoods talking to people and recording their memories. She heard stories of people who spent days on rooftops, people who saw dead babies float by their houses, people who had sores on their skin from spending too much time in water, people who went days without food, people who survived but had to witness the deaths of others, unable to help.

One woman McBean met was still living in her hurricane-damaged house. “Even after six months, her house was a mess,” she says. “It reeked. There was mold all over the place. Stuff was still damp. I don’t know how she lived there.”

She also saw people just sitting on their steps or on street corners in their own worlds, dazed. “You work your entire life to build up this perfect dream,” she says, “and in one day it’s gone and there’s no one there to help you. You get crazy.”

For a week McBean immersed herself in the everyday struggles of survivors, watching as wealthy areas were revamped while poor minority communities withered. When she returned to campus, McBean immediately began looking for ways to return to New Orleans to offer more of her help. “Coming back to Ithaca, beautiful Ithaca, I was distraught for a while,” she says. “Folks just have to go down there and see [for themselves].”

With a daunting amount of work still looming, the alternative spring breakers hope to inspire others to take similar trips to offer help to the devastated areas.

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