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In New Orleans to help; to learn

William and Mary students in New Orleans.

William and Mary students in New Orleans.

The following first-person entries were submitted by Drew Stelljes, director of the Office of Student Volunteer Services. He and 11 students are on a service trip in New Orleans in conjunction with the course "U.S. Response to Katrina." The trip is one of 10 domestic and seven international service trips being conducted by William and Mary students during the break. —Ed.

#3: Fire Brewing

We have worked hard for several days now. The emotional toll is probably as exhausting, if not more, than the physical. There are many projects to choose from and each night we individually select a project from a variety of projects. Beautification and tutoring activities top the list of most common projects. I think the project descriptions are indicative of where New Orleans stands in terms of recovery. The long-term volunteers report that the gutting is complete (in the areas that will be repaired) and we are needed most in the schools. Many of us are tutoring children at a local charter school. The school leadership is directed, purposeful and determined. They want the kids to succeed.

I work with a fourth grade class in the mornings and individual eighth graders in the afternoon. The younger children are eager to please and I have fun challenging them to solve more complicated math problems. The older children are preparing for the annual statewide examination that they need to pass in order to move on to high school. According to the children I work with the exam is split up over five days. I help them with math preparation and when we finish a tutoring session I worry about their chances. They are all respectful and genuinely try, but it seems as though they never learned the foundations of math functions they need to solve more complicated word problems. I am not sure how to help.

link to civic engagement Web siteIn the evenings our team discusses our daily tasks and the conversations usually steer toward issues of access to education and the ways in which the hurricane stalled the kids learning. One day we were expecting a rain and wind storm and the children and faculty were very concerned. Post Katrina has brought fear when a storm is expected. Cell phones were ringing consistently as moms called their children to discuss the details of the approaching storm. The team discusses politics freely and we have come to learn this is a group of left leaning individuals. We have agreed to be cautious about drawing conclusions based on personal ideology or bias. Objectivity can be difficult in this emotionally charged environment. Our large group conversation is productive, ironic too, in that we all leave with more questions than answers, but with a determination to learn more. There is a "fire brewing" in the bellies of the group members. Each has questions they want answered and they are asking more questions of individuals and holding on to the questions for further research upon returning to W&M. The questions spawned on this trip will not fad easily. They want to consider the multitude of possible answers. Group sessions conclude with small groups walking inside to talk more.

The members of this group are quite exceptional and each person plays an important role. A few examples: Luke Pickett ('11) keeps us laughing with renditions of 80's rock (he is quite good). Trevor Buckley ('09), keeps us on track leading our group on every walking excursion. Trevor can have an intellectual conversation about anything, anytime. Daniel Key ('08) and Kristin Corcoran ('08) are the prototype trip leaders. They keep us energized and focused and they know when to make sure we are laughing. Liz Ketner ('08) our soon to be medical student questions the role of health care in low-income parts of New Orleans. Rachel Reeves ('11) is our team photographer and Dave Gemmill ('09) is a sincere, level headed force and our team videographer. This is a team that is quick to learn as well as to laugh and that's quite a combination.

We will leave on Sunday morning and I suspect our packs will be a lot fuller. We've learned a lot already and so much more to soak in. Off to tutor…

#2: Thriving or on life support?

Our day began early with the sun cracking brightly through the windows of our dorm style room. We had a lot to accomplish today. Being Sunday we would not work at project sites, rather we would learn by listening carefully to residents as they told the story of how Katrina unfolded. We were greeted by Will, a W&M graduate, Class of '84. He treated us to lunch at a local hot spot where he told us his story of the devastation, rebuilding, and uncertainty over his future. Will is a talented city planner, having arrived some 11 years ago expecting to consult for a brief time, but he was lured into the culture of New Orleans. He is bright, thoughtful, intensely immersed in New Orleans and also frustrated. Will expressed his concerns with a relatively absent federal government and unfulfilled promises. In recollecting on his time living in NYC he is certain that government response to a similar disaster would be quite different. We asked many questions and he answered them thoroughly and with honesty. We left with many more questions than when we arrived. Will is a good teacher.

Our afternoon was spent touring the battered areas of Lakeview, the Lower 9th Ward and the three levee breaks. Chris, a fire chief in Lakeview was a wonderful tour guide. A lifelong resident, Chris was the first to rebuild his home in Lakeview. Water rose to the gutters of his single story home and he used a boat to visit his home for the first three weeks after the storm. Our tour provided countless examples of devastation so bad that neighborhoods have been completely abandoned. Houses still stand with items in tact from the day of the storm. Every item in the house covered with dirt, a refrigerator lays on top of debris and at one house a bible lays open covered with dirt and mold, in an abandoned room. In this section of the Lower 9th hope is gone. No one remains. A few cement porches are the only reminder that a community once stood and Chris tells stories of generations of families living in the same home passing down the home, stories and values. That time has passed. They will not return. We talked about what it would take to rebuild the Lower 9th. It's too late but if the federal government wanted to it would take a few months of committed effort. He doesn't think they want to though. They're not interested in building for the poor so he says. In other areas some homes have been nicely repaired and families live fairly comfortably. A visible reminder lingers, the spray paint "X" with symbols is permanently written on the front of their home. Life is still much more complicated for those that returned. School is much farther away, mail is sporadic, local strip malls of grocery, pharmacy, and recreation are empty, still boarded up. The second largest municipal park in the country in Lakeview is in disrepair.

Chris is resolute and brave. He was the first back in his neighborhood and he is sad that most have not returned. He is realistic now, knowing the past is a memory of better days. Post Katrina is different. He speaks easily about how the smell of mold and the stench of the earth remain and he is certain that the stress of the experience has taken at least a few years off his life. His family is his fire station. A single man, his parents deceased, New Orleans is his home, wet or dry, thriving or on life support. He is resolute, but he is angry. He expects more from his government. He remarks that EMT, Fire and Police are the backbone of a community and they have received virtually no help in recovery. The fire stations that have been rebuilt in his area are a product of a television series on rebuilding New Orleans. He is grateful for the help. Lakeview and the 9th Ward will probably never completely rebuild. We pass oil refineries that span miles of highway. Forty percent of US oil is refined on the shores where Katrina landed. They are working well. They were repaired overnight.

Chris rebuilt on the land where his community once stood tall. Now most lots are empty. He is alone. Lakeview is eerily quiet. The repaired levee hovers over the community. Chris hopes next time it holds.

#1: Here to help; here to learn

Bright blue skies greeted us in New Orleans, a city clearly on the rebound from the devastation of Katrina. There is a sense of optimism and hope on most street corners. Residents want us to know they are on their way back. In fact many would argue they are back. The main streets in the Garden District are alive and well. Beads hang from the magnolia trees, a friendly reminder of the spirit of New Orleans. Yet the deep wound of Katrina’s fury lingers along the side streets. The work is far from complete. I walk alongside 11 of the most dedicated and compassionate students this country has to offer. They greet residents with a warm smile and each is quick to communicate affiliation with William and Mary - Tribe Pride is in full effect.

For decades critics of higher education have expressed concern that institutions of higher education should be more responsive to society, that universities take account of society’s needs, that is in fact our obligation to do so. I need not look any farther than at the students I walk alongside to conclude that we are meeting the call to action. Their hearts are pure, our mission concrete. We are here to help with recovery. We are here to listen carefully and in time we will critically reflect on our course objectives. How does access to recovery intersect with economic privilege? We’ll soon discover.

For now we are greeted by staff at Hands on New Orleans with a smile and an expectation. We will work hard for others. We are here to help; we are here to learn. The sun set gently on a beautiful city after a long day of travel. Our eyes have been wide open all day soaking in the sights and it is time for rest. We have much to do. The journey has just begun…

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