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Students Help Rebuild Homes and Hopes

They ripped up floors, pulled down paneling and insulation, carried out trash and ruined furniture, and treated the remaining floors and walls for mold. It may hardly sound like an average college student's idea of fun, but the thirteen Berea College students who traveled to New Iberia, Louisiana, to help recover homes from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina said the experience was "amazing."

The "Rebuilding Through Service" short term class.

The students were part of an intense and perspective-changing January short term class, Rebuilding Through Service: Lessons of Hurricane Katrina. Guided by their teacher, Meta Mendel-Reyes and working with a grass-roots organization in the area called the Southern Mutual Help Association, the students helped clean out six hurricane-damaged homes. They also interacted closely with the families whose homes they were working on, which ranged from a four-generation family of Cajun fishermen to an elderly African American couple.

"Like many people, I was really affected by the hurricane and wanted to respond," said Mendel-Reyes. "Short term seemed like the first opportunity to involve students in recovery work." Hopeful to lend a hand as well as teach students the differences between charity work and service that addresses root causes, Mendel-Reyes asked permission to change her short term offering to the Rebuilding class. She also found a community partner in the Southern Mutual Help Association, because "it was important that our participation in hurricane recovery be connected to long-term community development," said Mendel-Reyes.

Before their trip, the class spent a week and a half in Berea studying the hurricane and subsequent recovery process, as well as learning about the meaning of service and citizenship. Mendel-Reyes said she hoped that the class would give her students first-hand knowledge about the hurricane, as well as the impact the hurricane had on the poor and people of color. "I also hoped that they would learn that people can overcome even such a disaster by working together to rebuild community and achieve justice," said Mendel-Reyes.

"It was a blast," said Mikala Rollins, one of the students. "As a class, we got so close." She added that one of the most important things about the class for her was talking with the people, because "they had so much hope."

The experience of seeing the devastation and speaking with people whose homes were damaged by the hurricane affected many of the students. "You see all this... on the news and you become desensitized," said Zack Kocher, another student. It was only when he met the families affected by the hurricane and saw the damage in person that it truly became real. "You wouldn't believe how much hope they have," said Kocher, unknowingly echoing Rollins' sentiments. "The people have so much hope."

The students also spent a day in New Orleans looking around at some of the damage. They discovered some eerie effects of the hurricane. While some houses were virtually unharmed, a neighboring house across the street could be completely destroyed. "It was hit and miss everywhere we went," said Rollins.

Although the class was deeply affected by their experiences in Louisiana, those same experiences were equally significant to the people they helped. "This kind of stuff doesn't happen to people like us!" a woman named Nicole told the students when they came to work on her house. "This is the kind of stuff that happens on TV. I feel like a celebrity."

At the end of the term, the class held a Louisiana-themed presentation in Baird Lounge to show people what they accomplished. The students created booths which focused on such key issues as media representation; race and poverty; women, children, and families; the rebuilding process; preparation and prevention and Southwestern Louisiana. News articles, slide show presentations and pictures that the class took were mixed together to paint a portrait of their experience and a taste of Louisiana culture.

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