| Spring Break In Big Easy Opens Eyes And Hearts
Devastating. Shameful. Shocking. A war zone. These are the adjectives Berea College students and their adviser used to describe their recent impressions of the once thriving city of New Orleans. Fourteen BC representatives spent their spring break serving the victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the 9th Ward of the city April 2 - 8. “The damage that was done two years ago still appeared as if it had happened two months ago,” remarks Djuan Trent, a sophomore theatre major from Georgia. A presentation of the group’s experiences will be made Tuesday, May 8, at 6:30 p.m. in the Commons of the Woods-Penniman building.
Students (l-r) Christian Motley, CeDarian Crawford and Tunde Oluyitan help with Katrina cleanup.
Some had been to The Big Easy before and some hadn’t, but the effect of walking through the streets and talking with the residents was the same. All felt disbelief and anger that so little has been done to help. “New Orleans looks like it had been bombed. Americans should be ashamed on a regular basis for what we let happen to our fellow human beings,” states Tashia Bradley, adviser and Black Cultural Center director. Anna Hoone, a junior music major from Oregon adds, “There was a kind of inexplicable sadness that hung over the city. It was most definitely not the jubilant party town I had heard of before.”
The trip brought Amanda Lucas, a sophomore majoring in African and African American Studies close to her home in Terry, Miss., which was one reason she chose to volunteer. “I have a lot of family and friends who lost their home and who still haven’t returned and I felt a personal responsibility and obligation to help in this desperate time. … Nothing prepared me for actually seeing New Orleans in the condition it was in. It looked like a third world country. For that to be in America is terrible.”
Several BC volunteers note that the New Orleans people had been traumatized by their experience. While talking with residents, the Bereans learned that most had lost nearly every material possession they owned and some had lost friends and family members. They described seeing bodies floating in the water after the flood. Yet “many of the people had not yet lost their spirits. They were able to keep moving with a glimpse of hope and joy that showed in their presence,” describes senior Olatunde Oluyitan, a business administration major from Ohio.
“I will always remember ‘Mama D,’ a community activist who took the time to talk to us about the problems going on in the city,” reports Debra Bulluck, a sophomore Spanish major from Alabama. “I will always remember the passion in her voice as tears ran down my face.”
Nine of the BC volunteers caught some of the activist’s fervor while attending the Dr. Carroll F.S. Hardy National Black Student Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C., over the winter break. While there, junior Geri Guy, a history major from South Carolina and one of the team’s leaders, was transformed by a speech given by Dr. Calvin Mackie, a board member of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. “When I heard (him) speak of all the continued suffering of New Orleanians and other Gulf Coast residents, I was filled with an urge to do something more," she explains. "I had no idea that my fellow conference goers would feel that same passion.”
Compelled to lend a helping hand, the attendees came back to Berea determined to find a way to spend their spring break volunteering in southern Louisiana. According to Guy, local and home churches were contacted seeking donations as were many campus departments. Proceeds from a “Soul Food for the Soul” dinner were added to the funds and enough was raised so that each student would only have to pay for a few meals on the trip.
The students traveled by van to the city where they stayed in a former school in the ninth ward with other volunteers for Common Ground Collective, a relief organization that houses, feeds and supplies volunteers. Over several days the BC group did a variety of jobs around the facility, in the community and at a nature park preserve. In the park they cleared nature trails and uprooted an invasive plant that is keeping the preserve from doing its job of soaking up flood waters.
Now that they are back to the comforts of home at college, the 14 activists can’t get the flooding victims out of their minds and hearts. Bulluck has been working for the Gulf Coast Civic Works Project to gather 1,500 signatures on a petition to add to a nation-wide lobbying effort to ask the U.S. Congress to create 100,000 jobs for Gulf Coast residents. Supporters argue that programs like the Works Progress Administration used during the Depression to provide thousands of jobs and turn the economy around are needed again for that area.
Most of the students have returned to find themselves more grateful for their blessings and with an urge to get the word out that help is still desperately needed in the New Orleans area. Children wander the streets because there are not enough schools rebuilt yet; homes and property of people who fled the storm are being condemned and seized without their knowledge by the city; the cleanup need is still great and people need jobs and a permanent place to live.
Several students are planning on returning to the region as soon as possible to continue what they started. Others are getting the lessons they learned out to their fellow students. “We should never take anything for granted and … we should always be willing to lend a helping hand to others because you never know when you will need a helping hand as well,” states Trent.