Life lessons in the Gulf's living lab

They were strangers here a few days ago, volunteering to knock on doors for a community-organizing group. Now Liz Henderson and Kristen Kuriga are greeted as friends. Mary Solomon, a lifelong New Orleanian, welcomes them into her cheerful white house - an anchor in a neighborhood where the decay started long before the storm.

They are here to listen to her story. To record it. To connect. To help. To learn.

***

The service trip in early January was only eight days long, but for Ms. Henderson, a junior at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., it wasn't too brief to be "completely life-altering." Her experiences - ranging from gutting flooded houses to picketing a hotel trying to evict Katrina evacuees - put her on an emotional rollercoaster. But in the end, it confirmed her career aspirations: "Going door-to-door really showed me ... I'd like to do [a certain] kind of journalism - talking to people who normally don't have their stories told," she says.

Thousands of college students from across America have not only been moved by the magnitude of the Gulf Coast disaster - they've also been mobilized. Break Away, a group that coordinates alternative vacation trips, reports at least half of its 80 chapter schools are organizing hurricane-relief trips. More than 200 collegians have already traveled to the region for Break Away winter trips.

With guidance from nonprofit groups and professors devoted to the idea of service learning, young people are putting their talents to use in courtrooms and health clinics, at construction sites and elementary schools. As New Orleans and other Gulf coast towns reinvent themselves, many find it an irresistible living laboratory in which to hone their skills.

***

In a quiet voice, Ms. Solomon unfurls her story: her evacuation by helicopter after nearly a week refusing to leave; her first plane ride; her decision to return after friends saw her house on TV and said it was fine.

When the conversation shifts to the future, Ms. Kuriga, a trip leader and recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence, asks, "What do you want New Orleans to look like?"

"It should be better than it was, but I know it's going to take a couple of years." Solomon pauses, and lets out a long sigh. "I'm praying for that day, and for my children to come home." Her five children and their families are scattered across three states. She bows her head and brings her fingers to the bridge of her nose as if to hold back tears. Henderson reaches out to touch her arm. "I'm OK," Solomon says. "I do this every day."

***

A group that formed spontaneously at Sarah Lawrence decided right away that their response to the hurricane should extend beyond fundraising. Eventually they connected with the New Orleans office of the national group ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), which would host them on a service-learning trip. To prepare, they met with professors with expertise on urban development, race, mental health, and oral histories. They also started listening to the concerns of evacuees in their own backyard in New York.

"My main impression was complete shock and outrage," says Sarah Lawrence pupil Sarah Ihmoud of her November scouting trip to New Orleans. "It was almost as if a red tape had been put around entire communities and the federal government hadn't been doing anything. It made us feel very emotionally connected right away."

Nine students committed to the January trip, paid for by a combination of grants. "They aren't receiving credit, although it may end up being one of the most valuable learning experiences they have at college," says Dean Hubbard, a trip adviser who teaches community-organizing classes. The students hope to write up the oral histories and perhaps use them to raise more relief funds.

ACORN is organizing a stream of volunteers in New Orleans. Gabrielle Thal-Pruzan, who traveled here from Northampton, Mass., as part of Feminists of Smith [College] Unite, says that despite the throngs of students eager to help, not enough of her classmates are continuing to think about the disaster's effects. "So many things happened this past year, so this is just one more," she says. "I couldn't understand it until I came and saw it."

The hours spent wearing breathing masks as they cleared out moldy furniture and drywall have been instructive in surprising ways. "We learned to communicate physically," Ms. Ihmoud says, contrasting it to the verbal nature of classroom interaction.

The work gives people who usually focus on policy a close-up view. "I found a baby picture in my shovel of dirt," says Madeline Giscombe, an urban-planning student from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Every day, someone has a similar bittersweet story. At one work site, students hauled thousands of soggy books to the curb in front of a small house. Ms. Thal-Pruzan saw a feminist version of the Bible in the mound. Some contractors would charge $6,000 to gut a house - labor students are doing for free - says Brian Lewis, an ACORN staffer. "They've been awesome," he says. "They have more energy than people who do it for wages."

***

Near the end of the trip, the Sarah Lawrence volunteers gather at the Biscuit Palace, an eclectic French Quarter bed and breakfast. It's their nightly meeting, a way to regroup and reflect.

PernaLyn Baier recalls conversing in Spanish with a day laborer. The working conditions were fine, she says, "but the hardest thing is, no one treats him like a person.... I thought, 'How long has it been since anyone's really talked to him?' "

To the backdrop of quiet sobs - her own and her fellow volunteers' - she explains how strange it felt in contrast to her work with laborers in New York, where she can connect them to a network of services. "I was like, I can't do anything. What am I supposed to say?"

"It sounds like he really just needed to talk," Mr. Hubbard, the trip adviser, says reassuringly.

The mood brightens later when Henderson passes around a parting gift from Mary Solomon: a golden coconut with a painted face and stuck-on "googly eyes," as she calls them. During Mardi Gras, it's one of the most coveted items tossed to the crowd in the Zulu Parade. Now it's been adopted as the group mascot.

A sampling of Gulf Coast service-learning projects

• In December, about three dozen Dartmouth students took one of what they hope will be many trips to Biloxi, Miss., over the next two years. Working with Hands On USA, they decided on five ways to help the community: creating a documentary about housing advocacy; taking oral histories; conducting art projects with schoolchildren; offering résumé-writing workshops; and putting some muscle into demolition/construction.

• This month, 40 students from Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama are traveling south to help with the recovery. Before their departure, they spent a week on campus learning about the environmental and social context.

• At the University of California, Berkeley, law students who helped hurricane victims over winter break will spend class time this semester preparing policy papers on issues such as flood insurance and antidiscrimination provisions in disaster-response plans. A Berkeley radio production class will conduct field recordings in the New Orleans area with NPR's "The Kitchen Sisters," Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva.

Information on planning service trips to the Gulf Coast is available at www.nationalservice.gov/urap and www.alternativebreaks.org

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