Students Return to NOAHH for Alternative Spring Break

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This spring, over 1,600 students will join NOAHH on the build site as spring break volunteers, and many of the schools will be volunteering for the tenth time since their partnership began as a response to Hurricane Katrina. Over 75% of the schools are returning for at least the second time, and most of the returning schools have volunteered at least five times in the past. As the affiliate commemorates the decennial anniversary, we are seeking to honor many of the partners who have made these last ten years of progress possible. As a whole, alternative spring break volunteers have been a crucial aspect of the success of NOAHH, bringing in over 20,000 volunteers in the last ten years. Every school that has been a part of this has been an important part of the recovery of New Orleans. The energy and inspiration that the arrival of students from around the country–and the world–brings to the city annually has helped NOAHH and our partners focused on the mission of eliminating poverty housing even as we expand our approach.

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With so many students coming from returning schools, including George Washington University, the Rockwood School District, the Dalton School, and many, many more, NOAHH contacted many of our spring break partners to find out more about why they chose volunteer service in New Orleans. InterVarsity New England is a faith-based ministry that is based on over 75 campuses in New England (and over 600 nationwide). The New England chapter has been partnering with NOAHH for 10 years, bringing student volunteers since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Though they spend part of the trip visiting the sights in New Orleans, they also come again and again for something more. As John Corey, InterVarsity’s Volunteer Coordinator, said, “As a faith-based ministry, we encourage our participants to explore the intersection of faith and justice as they work alongside and for homeowners and hear their life stories… When students’ work translates into a personal story they hear from a homeowner or neighbor it transforms the physical work into something special.”

Among the many returning schools are several local schools, who make up a fourth of all spring break volunteers in 2015. Student volunteer groups are returning from Louisiana State University, Loyola University, Tulane University, the University of New Orleans, and Xavier University, and DeLasalle High School is joining NOAHH for the first time. These schools have been supporting NOAHH on weekends and during breaks and special build days year round since before the storms, and after the hurricanes, their support amplified as community service became an even bigger part of their curriculums. NOAHH’s primary service learning partner, Mount Carmel Academy, has been volunteering throughout the year since 1998. Suzanne Buras, Mount Carmel’s Director of Student Activities, explained how it fit together.

 

ucalg2A Brush with Kindness and [Mount Carmel’s] service learning component is exactly what our students need to understand all they learned in their Social Justice classes,” she said. “Habitat gives them a safe place to work and meet people from different backgrounds and socio-economic levels; yet they all come together for the common good–to help those in need who financially cannot help them selves. To work side and by side with some homeowners and hear their stories just makes what students learn in Social Justices classes come to life.”

Other groups, like five-time partner Kent State University‘s Construction Management students, bring what they learned to the work site. Every student with Kent State this year has hands-on experience and OSHA-30 training, and some of them even have experience with other Habitat affiliates.

“After my first time volunteering with our local Habitat for Humanity chapter, I couldn’t wait to go back!” said Megan Grable, a junior at Kent State. “I had a great time working on the new house build and learned a lot from the leader on the site who took the time to teach us how to use the tools, the best methods for completing our work, and why certain things were build or applied the way they are. The benefit of volunteering was mutual; I was able to help someone get closer to moving into their home and at the same time I learned about construction through hands on experience.”

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One of the biggest areas of support for NOAHH has come from a dedicated group of Canadian schools. February and March are obviously much different, weather-wise, a few thousand miles north of New Orleans, but the appeal of spending a spring break with a hammer or a paint brush in a subtropical city is more than just a change of scenery. A tenth of all 2015 spring break volunteers are from Canadian schools, including long-time partners McMaster University, Mohawk College, Western University, and the University of Calgary. McMaster University hosts MacServe Reading Week every year, using their spring break as a service learning experience similar to other schools, as the program combines a social justice theme with the work the students do on site. For the New Orleans trip this year, the theme is “resiliency.”

“It is easy for our students to see the impact of the work that they are doing, and it lines up well with our learning themes (which is resiliency). And [NOAHH] provides opportunities for students to meet the people from New Orleans and gain perspectives from people who will be moving into or are living in [NOAHH’s] builds,” said Sean Beaudette, Service-Learning and Civic Engagement Program Coordinator at McMaster University. “At the end of the day, our students want to feel that they’ve achieved something.”

Many students choose to volunteer as a way to give back, independent of service learning experiences. While many express satisfaction at seeing the results of their efforts, some know from experience what it is to receive. Speaking of why she volunteers, Aubrey Blank of Mohawk College explained, “[I was] just trying to help others and give back where I can how I can. I think it’s important for those who can give to others do. It’s part of a cycle that must continue. I was once on the receiving side of the cycle, and now that I can make a difference I’m on the giving part of that cycle… I didn’t choose New Orleans, but I’m glad the school did because I feel like people have forgotten about what happened to New Orleans and the devastation that’s occurred. Once the media drops a story society tends to forget. This is my way of saying that I didn’t forget.”

Of course, many students also come to New Orleans for more than just the opportunity to volunteer. The food, music, history, and culture of the city are cited over and over again as part of the allure. As Jackie Carmichael of Muskoka Woods, a student group from Toronto, explained, “The group of youth love to be able to tangibly help a community through service. There is something important about doing things with your hands and helping to be a part of something as unique as NOAHH… There is a pulse to this city that is so different than anywhere in Canada.”

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Even new volunteers find the memory of Hurricane Katrina still resonates. Like Aubrey Blank, Alyssa Jo Johnson of Columbia College in Missouri recognizes the continued need for hard work to revitalize the city. Though so much progress has been made by the thousands of volunteers, locally and from around the world, and though the people of New Orleans have worked hard on their own to see the city return to being a symbol of a unique culture and heritage, there is still more to be done.

“I chose New Orleans because I feel like it is still an area that is in recovery. New tragedies happen around the world all the time, but Katrina’s after effects are still a huge part of New Orleans. I would like to offer help to those who still need it,” Johnson said.