Standing at the construction site of the two homes they are helping to build from scratch in the Ninth Ward, Sarah Lytle, the 17-year-old student leader of the group, who talks fast and smiles a lot, says it is an unprecedented experience for her. "This is something that's going to affect my life in a different aspect because I've never been to great devastation like this. To actually come and see and help another person out is more than great. [The hurricane] didn't affect me, but to come out here and help someone else, that gives me joy."
Following two flights that lasted more than six hours, the students suddenly found themselves in the late-night darkness of Camp Hope, a former school building that has been converted to dormitory-style living quarters for volunteers in the St. Bernard Parish town of Violet.
The thick, damp air that hit their faces when they first stepped outside surprised them. They were used to the dry desert climate of their bedroom community in southern California, so they asked their teacher, former New Orleanian Katy Reilly, just what it was in the air that they were smelling. "That's New Orleans, baby," she replied.
Students from across the country have started coming to the city for another year of what has been dubbed "alternative spring break," in which students spend their time away from classes doing volunteer work along the Gulf Coast instead of laying poolside somewhere with the rest of the spring breakers. Habitat for Humanity has led the effort with its Collegiate Challenge, which recruits young volunteer workers all year round.
For the Vista del Lago students, the struggle just to get here was tough. The idea for the project came to students after Reilly complained to her classes how frustrated she was at the pace of the recovery in her hurricane-devastated hometown. "When I started talking about New Orleans and about how much I love it and miss it and how horrified I am that it's still in this condition, my students were like, 'We've got to go,'" says Reilly. All seniors at the public high school with about 3,000 students where Reilly works are required to do a senior service/learning project that makes up 15 percent of their grade. A volunteer trip to New Orleans would fill those requirements.
But first they needed money, and raising it wasn't going to be easy. They couldn't pull from the school budget, and their school recently had made headlines when a 16-year-old student was shot dead just a block away, which they feared could dampen fundraising efforts. They proceeded to write grant proposals, give PowerPoint presentations, write letters and deliver speeches to fellow students and adults in the community about why they wanted to travel to New Orleans and volunteer in the recovery effort.
"We broke out the whole dog-and-pony show," says Reilly. The group even held a small raffle in which students could buy tickets and guess how many Mardi Gras beads were stuffed into a jar to win an iPod.
Reilly held meetings in her classroom every Thursday afternoon, during which interested students had to submit an essay on why they would make a good candidate for the trip. After five months of weekly meetings, they had whittled the group down to six students and had raised almost $7,000. Just as it looked like they were going to make it to New Orleans, however, the school board told them they weren't allowed to go.
"If the school board says no, that is it," Reilly told her students "They have the yea or nay on this, so you need to say what you need to say in order to get us there or else it's not going to happen." The six students walked into the next school board meeting determined to make the trip a reality. Each addressed the meeting and successfully convinced the school board to let them go.
The trip to the South, especially an area recovering from a catastrophe, has presented the students with several learning experiences. Lytle says the trip has been meaningful to her because it has shown her the value of helping people -- even strangers -- recover from a disaster. Fellow student Rey Dulaney says in addition to earning good marks on his college transcript and fulfilling his senior requirements, he was interested in coming to New Orleans to see what the kids his age were like.
"I wanted to see what the cliques were like and what the fashion was like," says Dulaney who got a chance to visit with kids from McDonogh 35 last week. Reilly also had made plans for the group to see the vibrant side of New Orleans with a nighttime stop at Snug Harbor and a trip to Mid City Lanes Rock 'N' Bowl, two of her old hangouts when she worked in the Crescent City's hotel industry before taking a teaching position in Merino Valley.
Reilly still sees her students' work in building the homes and experiencing a devastated neighborhood as the most important part of their trip. "They are developing a sensitivity that they didn't have before," she says.
CORRECTIONS In "Pumped Out" (News & Views, March 27), we erred in the first name of Col. Jeffrey Bedey of the U.S. Corps of Engineers.
In "Woods Work" (March 27), we misprinted the Web site address for artist Elizabeth Underwood. The correct address is www.elizabethunderwood.net. Gambit Weekly regrets the errors.