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Volunteers aid during holidays

Rohan Anand | Wednesday, January 17, 2007

It’s been nearly 18 months since Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc upon the Gulf Coast and New Orleans, but Notre Dame students who traveled to aid in the clean-up process still encountered the remnants of destruction in the ravaged city.

The University’s Gulf Coast Task Force, founded by junior Caity Schneeman, led a group of approximately 15 students to gut three homes and one school in two suburbs of the city, Lakeview and East New Orleans, from Dec. 29-Jan. 3.

Sophomore Sean Hoskins returned to New Orleans this winter for his third time volunteering for the task force and said he still felt that a great deal of restoration was needed.

“After visiting so many times, you finally get the full effects of what’s happening,” he said, “and you feel compelled to return and see the damage and how much work needs to be done.”

The Gulf Coast Task Force has sent hundreds of student volunteers to the Big Easy during the past year to help revive the city. But this time its trip did not receive any sponsorship from the Center of Social Concerns (CSC). Because Notre Dame was scheduled to play LSU in the Sugar Bowl, the CSC felt that it was best for the group to coordinate with the Alumni Office instead, said Bill Purcell, assistant professional specialist for the CSC.

“Usually we give grants to the student volunteers to organize themselves,” he said. “But since the Alumni Office was organizing a lot of things because of the bowl game, working at similar sites with similar partners, it made sense for the task force to ally with them.”

The task force works with Catholic Charities, a subdivision of Operation Helping Hands that assists uninsured, elderly or disabled people in New Orleans. Relying completely on volunteers, Catholic Charities assigns approximately 15 individuals per house, and provides them with instructions and tools to gut them for the homeowners.

More than 30 alumni volunteers teamed up with the task force to clear out St. Mary’s of the Angels school in East New Orleans, a Catholic school for impoverished girls.

“It was a lot of fun getting to work with the alumni,” said senior Kyle Becker. “Though the first floor of the school was completely destroyed, we were able to clear out the entire second floor with an expanded group.”

Other Notre Dame students have also made their way down to New Orleans to volunteer. Hoskins and junior Radhika Deva spent eight weeks last summer gutting homes. Deva led a group this winter to gut homes in the West Bank area of the city.

“We would simply go into these homes and remove anything imaginable belonging to the homeowners: food, couches, carpets, refrigerators, countertops, walls, nails, countertops, bathroom sinks and tubs,” Deva said. “Basically, anything that carried mold had to be cleared.”

After this process, the houses would still be intact so homeowners could rebuild their homes according to their own preferences and prevent the city government from seizing the property.

Deva’s work did not go unrecognized. Kenneth Fitzpatrick, head of Catholic Charities, nominated Deva for the Community Quarterback Award presented by the NFL’s New Orleans Saints. She received a $1,000 grant and was invited to attend the Saints game against the Carolina Panthers.

“It was just incredible to see the looks of gratitude on the faces of the homeowners,” she said. “These people have been living in trailers for years trying to finance the gutting and rebuilding process, so it’s very uplifting to assist them.”

But some of the other volunteers were discouraged by the attitudes of some local New Orleans inhabitants and said that for “every good action, there came a negative response.”

“Though I’m optimistic about all of the effort that Catholic Charities is putting in, I’m not very positive about the future of the city,” Hoskins said. “The French Quarter is completely revived, and tourists only see that. The local government, not Catholic Charities, should be lifting the city on its back.”

Becker also felt that traveling to New Orleans during a bowl game made the trip different for the volunteers from previous ones.

“We realized … that a lot of people thought we were down there just for the bowl game, and we were a little taken aback by that,” he said. “We had spent almost 40 hours gutting houses, living in slums and we sponsored our own travel. We got to see what New Orleans really was about.”

But these circumstances haven’t discouraged Hoskins, who is taking over the task force this semester while Schneeman studies abroad. He hopes to attract more volunteers during spring break and over the summer.

“Based on our experiences, we felt a whole spectrum of emotions,” he said. “But aside from the politics, it’s our aim this semester to help New Orleans get on a fast road to recovery like Mississippi has.”