This August will mark the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina— the tropical storm that devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005. For many, ten years seems like a long time; however, New Orleans is only halfway through the city’s extensive twenty-year recovery plan.
This winter break, a group of seventeen Wheaton students and four staff members traveled to New Orleans as part of an annual trip to work with the St. Bernard Project, a nonprofit organization that helps communities affected by disaster recover as quickly as possible.
Wheaton students participated in a number of service activities with the St. Bernard Project during their time in New Orleans. The students’ main focus was the construction of what is called an “opportunity house”. Opportunity houses are abandoned homes that the St. Bernard Project purchases from the city. The organization then reconstructs these houses for first-time homeowners. During this trip, the Wheaton students spent most of their time dry walling houses.
It was interesting for students to see the environment of New Orleans and the differences between fully recovered areas, such as Bourbon Street, and areas that were still in need of help. “It’s definitely interesting because there are rebuilt homes that are really nice and beautiful and right next to them will be ones that are still boarded up and haven’t been touched yet,” said participant Amelia Jackson ’16, who has been on the NOLA trip twice now.
While the work students did in New Orleans was rewarding and incredibly worthwhile, the participants found their interactions with each other and with the city’s people to be the most valuable parts of the trip. The students were able to attend a housewarming party for a house the St. Bernard Project constructed for a woman and her five children. “All the volunteers from that week went to the house and had a big celebration for her moving in. That was a really cool experience, getting to see the final project,” said Jackson.
Students who participated in this trip also enjoyed bonding with their fellow Wheaton students. Bonds were especially strong among returning students who had participated in NOLA trips before. Students who went on the trip view it as a reason to stay at Wheaton, as it helped them forge connections and grow closer to people as they worked side-by-side to help the people of New Orleans.
Jackson continued, “It’s a really great way to build community, going on these trips. I had no personal connection with New Orleans before. I had never been there before, but I got to know the city and made new friends along the way. It’s cool to be a part of a community of Wheaton students, and it’s a community that you really bring back with you.”