College Students, Faculty Help Rebuild Katrina-Hit Cities

They're back and ready to rebuild.

College students are back in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina forced many campuses to close for the fall semester. Not only are these students a much-needed source of revenue and spirit for the devastated city — but they are also a source of energy and exuberance for a rebuilding process expected to take years.

"Your state needs you," Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco told students from Tulane, Xavier and Southern universities this week. "We need your minds, your good ideas, your contagious energy, your spirit, to rebuild."

Immediately after Katrina, college students around the country organized fundraisers and other activities in efforts to raise money to send down to the battered Gulf Coast. Not only were parts of Louisiana devastated, but the coastal regions of Mississippi and parts of Alabama were, as well. Most students were able to return to colleges in Mississippi and Alabama, albeit later than usual, but many New Orleans schools had to shut down for the entire fall semester.

It's the students attending schools in the Katrina-hit areas who say they have a vested interest in the communities they've learned to call home and want to aid in getting them back on their feet. And they're welcoming anyone who wants to come help.

"I think it's important for people around the country to understand some of the challenges we have here on the ground and not just what they hear in the media," said Hamilton Simons-Jones, the director of community services coordination at Tulane University.

"The fact is, it's going to take five to 10 years just to rebuild … I think there's a huge learning curve because nobody's ever experienced this sort of thing before. We're all sort of going through this together."

Tulane, along with Loyola, Xavier and Dillard universities, last Saturday held Outreach New Orleans, a huge community service event organizers hope will attract 3,000 volunteers. As part of the MLK Week for Peace activities, students, faculty, alumni, family, community volunteers and others fanned out across the Crescent City to clean up schools and community centers and take part in other neighborhood fix-up projects.

"It will be a lot of neighborhood cleanup and school cleanup projects to help get neighborhoods back and clean and shiny again," Simons-Jones said. "I really believe schools are going to be key to bringing New Orleans back."

A New Orleans People Want to Come Back To

The student-led NOLA Hurricane Fund this semester will sponsor computer classes for New Orleanians.

A group of college students displaced from Tulane last fall decided to take the semester off and start that fund. Whereas the short-term goal was to provide needed supplies to local EMTs in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, the group's long-term vision is to work to improve education in New Orleans.

"We all, even before the hurricane, have been troubled by the state of education and troubled by the lack of opportunity for many people in New Orleans," said Adam Hawf, one of the co-founders of the fund and a junior pursuing a double major in English and history at Tulane.

"We saw it as, when you have a post-disaster situation, you have groups that go in and try to save things, sort of a band-aid approach, and that's good and it's well-intentioned … that's not what we're looking to do. We saw this as a great opportunity to make a positive change and hopefully on a small level, create the sort of New Orleans that people want to return to and thrive."

Hawf, Aaron Rubens, Stephen Richer and Kevin Lander set up the 5013c charity with a motto of "rescue, relief and rebuilding" and have raised over $80,000 designated for hurricane relief and clean-up efforts and the computer program. They also adopted several displaced New Orleans families and are coordinating volunteer efforts of people around the country to raise money and more local efforts to clean up schools and houses.

The computer class idea was borne out of the displaced families' inability to get much-needed information from agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency or relief organizations after the hurricane unless they had a computer with Internet access.

"It was such a detriment to their ability to react to the hurricane," said Rubens, who gave up spending the year at the London School of Economics after Katrina hit and spent part of the last few months helping displaced New Orleans families get back on their feet in Huntsville, Ala., and Dallas. Plus, the kids were enthusiastic about using the computers to learn. "It was just really cool so I came back to the guys and said, 'this might be the direction to go," he said.

This semester, the NOLA Hurricane Fund will open a technology skills and tutoring center to teach lower-income families and students how they can use computers in their everyday lives, particularly how they can help improve job-training and educational programs. Participants will also receive donated computers.

And they've received a huge amount of interest from other students willing to aid in the effort.

"One of the central ideas was the idea that [this be] a student-led venture and one of our biggest successes has been tapping into the group of college students around the county," Hawf said. "They do care and they are interested and we've had a lot of success having volunteers sign up whether they come into New Orleans or do fundraising" at their own schools.

Helping Out on Spring Break

Some students this semester are opting out of beach vacations for this spring break and instead, heading south to help with service projects. Over the winter break, students from schools such as the College of William and Mary, as well as Brown, Tufts and New York universities descended upon New Orleans and other hard-hit cities to aid in rehabilitation efforts.

Nineteen students and two staffers from Connecticut College's chapter of Habitat for Humanity is heading to Phenix, Ala., March 11-March 18 to build houses for people who were displaced from their coastal homes. The school granted a $10,000 request from campus chapter President Eleanor Dominguez to fund the project.

"The city [Phenix] and the surrounding area are just overwhelmed with all these people who have nowhere to live," Dominguez said. "Right after the hurricane, there was just this huge campus-wide response and what we wanted to do at the club was get as many students as we could afford to go down as close to the Gulf that we can to help work on houses or rebuild houses for low-income families to address issues of homelessness and poverty and affordable housing."

Emporia State University geography professor Ellen Hansen was among 20 students and faculty members dubbed "Katrina Helping Hands" who made the 15-hour drive from Kansas to Gulfport, Miss., to help the University of Southern Mississippi community recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

"People want to do something practical, more than just send a check, which we realize is often the most practical thing to do. But it just seems so impersonal," Hansen said. "People want to make connections and feel like they're part of something larger than themselves, so getting involved in collecting provisions, tools, toys or whatever, gives us a sense that we are really helping."

But the need and desire to give back doesn't seem to be going away, as some of the focus on the dire conditions along the Gulf Coast seems to have.

College officials say there is an even greater interest in integrating service learning components into curriculum, not just from the staff — many of whom lost their homes in the storm — but also from students.

"There's a lot of faculty members who are more and more incorporating volunteerism as a part of their curriculum. I can't help but think Katrina unfortunately, provided more opportunity for that," said David Tisdale, assistant director of marketing and public relations for the University of Southern Mississippi.

Carol Jeandron is the director of Loyola University New Orleans' Office of Service Learning . She lost her home in St. Bernard Parish after her neighborhood drowned in 18 to 22 feet of water and, after moving around about 20 times, finally rented an apartment closer to campus just before the semester started Jan. 9. She said her insight and that of others who lived through Katrina could prove to be invaluable in teaching students the importance of giving back.

"Literally, for about three-and-a-half months, I kind of roamed the country, stayed with relatives and friends," said Jeandron, who grew up attending New Orleans public schools. "But it was a new experience because we who are used to giving suddenly were on the receiving end, which was not the easiest thing in the world to be on … one day I'm feeing the homeless, the next day I am the homeless. It's just a really dramatic twist."

Jeandron's office coordinates service projects where students work with deaf students, mentally challenged adults and others who need assistance. She is now trying to continue such projects by creating relationships with other schools in the area; many are new charter schools that were created in place of those that were wiped out.

"Considering what these young people have gone through, these children, that's going to become even more important," Jeandron said. "I've lost my belonging but I'm so much more fortunate than many others and our students see that. Even more, they're going to want to go out into the community."