August 13, 2012
USA TODAY: KIDS TRADE SPRING BREAK FOR A CHANCE TO HELP
Kids trade spring break for a chance to help
By Anne Rochell Konigsmark, USA TODAYMERAUX, La. — Jaclyn Unruh pulls off her face mask and sums up her spring break destination in one word: “Eerie.””It just seems like a ghost town,” she says of this St. Bernard Parish neighborhood, where floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina engulfed single-story ranch homes for miles around.
Unruh, 15, and 50 of her classmates from Bishop Miege High School in Shawnee Mission, Kan., are among thousands of high school and college students volunteering to help the Gulf Coast clean up from last summer’s hurricanes, Katrina and Rita. The Kansas students are here for a week to prepare flooded homes for renovation.
Unruh’s friends are vacationing in Mexico, Florida, even Spain as she eats her lunch in a light rain, the dingy, mangled contents of a flooded home at her feet. But “there’s always going to be more spring breaks,” she says. “You have one chance to do something like this.”
No doubt, plenty of work will remain this summer, as the students from Kansas can attest. “You’d think this would have been gone by now,” says Monica Wells, a junior at Miege. She’s looking inside a home untouched since Katrina flooded it up to the roof. “It’s kind of hard to see this. We were talking to a lady who used to live here who is still crying, like it happened yesterday.”
More than 200,000 homes were severely damaged or destroyed in Louisiana by Katrina and Rita, federal statistics say. Another 100,000 suffered major damage in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Texas.
Adam Cox, a senior at State University of New York-Cortland, is outside Biloxi, Miss., this week, clearing downed trees from residents’ yards and off homes.
“I was in absolute shock when I arrived,” says Cox, who was participating in Storm Corps, an alternative spring break organized by the United Way and MTV. “I came because I wanted to be of hands-on help. I know I’ll leave with more than I came with.”
Scott Harding, founder of the National Relief Network, which has coordinated relief programs for more than a decade, says he has never seen so many students who want to help. “It’s the silver lining of this whole thing,” he says. “It’s phenomenal that students are willing to give up their spring breaks and sitting on the beach to do this.”
The network will bring 10,000 students to the New Orleans area from now till August, Harding says. They will sleep in a federal tent city in St. Bernard Parish called Camp Premier. The students who volunteer through the network, including those from Miege, focus on cleaning out damaged homes. “Kids can do this and the residents don’t have to waste contractor time on it,” Harding says.
Hundreds of thousands of residents remain displaced, including more than half of New Orleans.
Almost every home in St. Bernard Parish just outside New Orleans had at least minor damage. Kathleen Doran, 58, stands in front of her mother’s ruined home, watching students in bright yellow shirts haul away the moldy, smelly remains of her neighbors’ lives.
“This is unbelievable,” says Doran, who spent five months in a Baton Rouge hotel and now lives in suburban Metairie. “To look at young people who certainly don’t have to be here, doing some of the nastiest jobs, is touching.
“Her mother, Rosemary Doran, 88, was equally moved by the Kansas crew. Her house sat in 8 feet of water; she hasn’t decided whether she’ll fix it or sell it. “I wish I could adopt them, they’re so adorable,” she says.
Mollee Hercules, a sophomore at Miege, isn’t feeling very adorable as she stumbles out of a mold-covered house. “I am so tired,” she says as she rubs her face. “And we haven’t even done much! But I know how much this kind of help really changes people’s lives.”