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Students volunteer on Gulf Coast

Madeline Buckley | Thursday, January 24, 2008

Nearly two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, residents are still working to rebuild. During winter break, 12 Notre Dame students traveled south to aid their cause.

The weeklong trip, which was sponsored and organized by the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE), focused on restoration of Catholic schools in the area.

ACE places Masters students in underprivileged Catholic schools throughout the country where they teach while earning graduate credit. ACE sent the 12 undergraduate volunteers to schools that both sustained major damage from the hurricane and currently employ ACE teachers.

“ACE wanted to serve the Catholic schools still affected by Katrina and give an opportunity to open students’ eyes to what happened,” said Greg Robinson, a sophomore who works for the ACE program and participated in the trip.

The students first traveled to Jackson, Miss., and went to different Catholic schools to help out in any way they could while meeting teachers and students who lived through the catastrophe.

“We would wake up, have a quick breakfast, and then went to the grade school where we would do jobs for them. They had a shed that needed to be cleared out for storage. They didn’t have the manpower to do it themselves,” Robinson said.

Later in the day, the students interacted with the children.

“We helped them with their math timed tests, and taught them cursive,” he said. “The kids were so happy to have the big kids there. They are excited to show you how good they are at subtracting with big numbers. We also played games of tag, and they dragged us into a game of touch football.”

The day-to-day routine continued as the students traveled along the Gulf Coast.

“We did odd jobs. We painted benches, cleaned a lot of windows, and again, in the afternoon we were working with the kids,” Robinson said.

The volunteers traveled as inexpensively as possible, Robinson said. The $100 fee per person covered the van fare and basic food.

“We didn’t use a lot of expenses,” Robinson said. “We got three vans to drive down, and ate a lot of peanut butter and bread. Throughout the trip we would stay in high school gyms, which I imagine didn’t cost money. The ACE program has good relations with schools in the area. Parents would give us dinner everywhere we went. They were very hospitable.”

An important part of the service trip was learning about the disaster and its aftermath. Various survivors spoke to the students about their experiences.

“We heard from some ACE teachers, and a couple who had their house destroyed in New Orleans,” Robinson said. “We heard from a teacher who is living in a trailer on her front yard, which is what most people are still doing down there. It’s a huge deal to have gotten into your house. People are still waiting after two and a half years.”

After working in the schools, the volunteers traveled into the heart of New Orleans.

“It was a really powerful day,” Robinson said. “Seeing how much devastation there still is, and how much has not been touched. We saw a couple of houses that still have the red X and marks with the date the house was searched and the number of bodies found.”

While the trip lasted only a week, the students plan to continue aiding the cause back at Notre Dame.

“We are trying to figure out how to keep the trip alive,” Robinson said. “We are giving a presentation around Mardi Gras to spread awareness, and looking back on how much the kids loved it, we are trying to arrange a pen pal program.

“‘I am so thankful for what I still have’ was probably the biggest message we got from the trip.”