Students learn life lessons on Alternative Spring Break in New Orleans

Student Jessica Metzger

Student Jessica Metzger, in front, works with her classmates to construct the flooring system for a Habitat for Humanity Home in the 7th Ward of New Orleans. The area was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and, a decade later, the storm's impact on the landscape remains overwhelming.

Credit: Steve Harmic

DUBOIS, Pa. — Often, the term "spring break" conjures images of far-away beaches, parties or other exotic vacations. A group of 19 Penn State DuBois students, however, had a much different idea in mind for spring break this year. They spent the week on an Alternative Spring Break Service Trip, in New Orleans, Louisiana, volunteering with three different charitable organizations, and helping to improve the lives of others.

The students served with Stop Hunger Now, volunteered at the Ozanam Inn Homeless Shelter in New Orleans, and worked to build houses with Habitat for Humanity in neighborhoods still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina a full decade after the storm.

Service Trips provide a variety of opportunities for students to learn more about themselves, others and the world around them through service. The program is designed to encourage personal growth, promote civic engagement, and enrich the lives of participants.

Each trip involves group discussion and reflection sessions that are intended to allow students to explore various social, political and environmental issues that arise during their service. Through individual and group reflection and activities, students are encouraged to compare and contrast their personal experiences with those of others as a means of exploring the topics of difference, power and privilege, stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination, and social inequity and injustice. Students also explore cultural, historical and recreational aspects of the environment in which they serve through excursions and educational programs.

"It is imperative for students to develop a sense of civic engagement and social responsibility," said Penn State DuBois Assistant Director of Student Affairs Marly Doty, who organized the trip and led students through their service in New Orleans. She explained some of the benefits that such trips provide for students in terms of personal growth and out-of-the-classroom education.

"Through the alternative spring break trip, students are immersed in a different community and culture, devote the week to serving that area, and discuss the complex social issues that exist there, at home, and in our country," said Doty. "The students that have participated in these experiences over the years have developed a strong sense of community and higher self-esteem. Their actions speak a great deal considering these students fundraise, complete assignments and reflection before and after the alternative spring break trip, and give an entire week to learn about someone else’s story and how they can help.

"Many of them have gone on to be a part of AmeriCorps, Teach for America, or received jobs because how strongly this demonstrates their character to an employer."

The first service opportunity students took part in after arriving in New Orleans was with Stop Hunger Now (SHN). The Jackson, Mississippi-based organization boasts 19 warehouses across the U.S. that supply nutritional meals to people in 65 countries around the globe, helping to sustain underprivileged people wherever there is a need.

"Each one of these students selflessly gave up their spring break in hopes of making a complete stranger’s life a little better." —Marly Doty, assistant director of student affairs, Penn State DuBois

SHN staged a mass meal preparation operation in the gymnasium of the Aurora United Methodist Church, where the students happened to be staying in the church bunkhouses for the week of the trip. There, the students joined nearly 200 other volunteers who were assigned various jobs along an assembly line-style operation in order to prepare an astonishing 50,000 meals in just two hours. Some volunteers weighed the dehydrated rice and other ingredients, some mixed, some packaged and sealed, and still others loaded the meals into boxes, preparing them to ship. The meals will be distributed to any location where the organization determines there is a need throughout the world.

"Our mission is to stop hunger in our lifetime by providing food and other necessities," said SHN Assistant Program Manager Pat Ware. "This is that global movement. The people. We could mechanize this system, but that won't end hunger. These people will; fostering this attitude to end hunger, will end hunger."

Penn State DuBois students, like Kristy Hanes, could not believe the 50,000 meal goal was met in just two hours. Hanes said, "I didn't think it was going to happen. When they said we were going to get to that goal, I was amazed."

Fellow students Jacob Skubisz and Alicia Vargas were impressed with the accomplishments of the team-oriented operation. "It shows you how much you can accomplish as a group," Skubisz said. Vargas added, "It gave perspective on how doing just a little can help so many people."

The following day, the students arrived at Ozanam Homeless Shelter in downtown New Orleans. The 96-person-capacity shelter provides three meals a day, beds, showers, clean clothing, plus dental and medical services to those in need throughout the Crescent City. Beds for the night are for men only, as other area shelters do provide for women and children. Meals, however, are available for everyone, and the shelter serves between 500 and 600 of those meals each day, seven days a week. All services are free of charge, with the shelter relying on donations and volunteers to sustain operations. Here, the students sorted and folded laundry and linens, made beds, and prepared and served meals to the shelter's clients.

Shanda Smith, the volunteer coordinator at Ozanam, said volunteers' efforts like those put forth by the students make it possible for the organization to accomplish its mission.  She said, "The volunteers are such a great help.  They're an inspiration, and they make the clients feel like they're human begins. They love to see someone showing that they care."

Smith pointed out to the volunteers that those who benefit from the shelter's services are always referred to as clients, and shown the proper respect that all individuals deserve. She asks that volunteers adhere to that rule, and refrain from terms or labels that could dehumanize those seeking assistance.

Student Courtney Mullins observed, "What you call a person can change perception. Everyone here is called a client. It makes them a person, not an object."

The students saw the impact they could have on clients at the shelter, just by having conversations and getting to know the stories of some of the people they encountered there. They also discovered inaccuracies in many of the societal stereotypes that are all too familiar.

Student Josh Sanko said, "I was surprised. I never met a person who is homeless before this. You don't expect them to be so upbeat. But, once you talk to them you learn that they're just people who want to have a conversation. They have lives and dreams and want something better for themselves."

Sanko's sentiments illustrate the reasons Ozanam's mission does not end at feeding and providing shelter. The mission extends far beyond charitable giving, into the realm of rehabilitation. Ultimately, the staff members at the organization strive to help their clients become independent citizens again.  Many who start out as regular clients are brought on as live-in team members, where they make a wage for working at the shelter. Eventually, after they're given help saving and budgeting, they are provided with assistance in finding a job outside of the shelter, and their own place to live.

"You'll go through trial and tribulations, but you have got to keep yourself right; you can't keep going the wrong way until you're under a bridge somewhere," said Maurice Prince, a team member at Ozanam who lost his job, and subsequently his home, in Denver, Colorado. Looking to start over, he made it to New Orleans just as his savings ran out. He found his way to the front door of the Ozanam shelter with nothing left but the clothes on his back, and just enough hope. Ever optimistic in the wake of his life's upset, Prince plans to seek work on off-shore oil rigs in the gulf. First, however, he recognizes the need to take the steps Ozanam is helping him to take in order to rebuild his life.

"I'm regrouping. I had to stop the bleeding in this life, that's why I'm here," Prince explained. "Being able to bounce back is important, and that's what this place gives me; a chance to regroup and rebuild in a structured environment.  I'll be back in the game again. I'm scoring now, and I'm going to win."

Other experiences the students had during their interaction with clients also depended upon the level of assistance and rehabilitation the client had received at the time. For some, their journey out of the darkest times in their life had just begun, but the students were happy to cast some light on their path, no matter how far along that person may have been.

Student Kara Wheaton emotionally recalled, "One guy, named Michael, told me my smile stopped him from killing himself today. That made me feel amazing." 

Classmate Justina Powers pointed out how humbling the experience at the shelter was as a whole: "It makes you think about everything you have and take for granted, because here are these people just thankful to get a warm meal."

For the remainder of the week, the 19 student volunteers from rural Pennsylvania spent their days helping to build houses in a city over 1,000 miles away from home, for people they would never meet. For inspiration to serve, one needed not to look far. Neighborhoods that were ravaged by Hurricane Katrina a decade ago are still a patchwork of abandoned, derelict structures and empty lots.  

"Habitat for Humanity has been here since Katrina, and there are still so many empty lots," said Audrey Fish, an AmeriCorps worker on contract with Habitat who serves as a volunteer organizer. "I doubt there is an end in sight; we are building whole communities in some places. Without volunteers, we really would not be able to do this. Volunteers essentially put up all the effort for this."

Most students were amazed at the level of devastation still present after so many years, and remarked that family and friends back home would not believe so much work still needed to be done in parts of the city. For those who have seen scars left by Katrina on this landscape, the decision to help in the continued efforts to rebuild is an easy one. It is driven not by personal connections to family, or friends, or this far-away city, but by a basic desire to lift up those who have fallen. Strangers or not, those who volunteer here believe that human beings who can help to bear the burden of their fellow man are working dutifully toward a more perfect world.

Student volunteer Evan Aravich said, "I think service is so important to others who need it and are less fortunate than you. We are very fortunate to have a bed, a shower and a home to go back to. Here, 10 years ago, people left and never had that to come back to. Being able to provide that foundation for them to have that again is so important."

Foundations, literally, are what the students provided. At two home-construction sites in New Orleans' 7th Ward, the students worked to build foundations for new homes by laying cement blocks, and building walls and columns that would support new family homes. They also helped to build flooring systems, installing floor joists and structural supports. It's the portion of home construction that most Habitat chapters around the country hire professional contractors to do at an average price of about $8,000. Here in New Orleans, the students alleviated that much more financial burden by volunteering to do the work.

"When I heard it was $8,000 between the foundation and floor, and that's what we were saving the homeowner, I was amazed," said student Dorothy Schaadt.

The experience not only provided students with the satisfaction of helping others in such a significant way, but also exposed them to learning new skills in masonry and carpentry, areas that most of them were not familiar with before.

"We've learned new things here," said Kristy Hanes. "We've learned skills and how to use different resources working here, and we can take that knowledge and use it to also help people back home."

Students recalled how each experience on the trip, in service, and in learning about the local culture, helped them to take new perspectives on volunteerism, education and the world around them.

"The food, the culture, the service to others, everything we experienced in New Orleans was just awesome," said Greg Myers. "The whole trip was incredible, and we really touched people's lives. I think people should try to do this type of service. You don't get the meaning until you do. Until you do it, you can't understand the feeling." 

"I think service is so important to others who need it and are less fortunate than you. We are very fortunate to have a bed, a shower and a home to go back to. Here, 10 years ago, people left and never had that to come back to. Being able to provide that foundation for them to have that again is so important." —Evan Aravich, student volunteer

Marly Doty was confident the students would return from New Orleans with such attitudes. She's seen before the influence service trips can have on those who participate: "A lot of times for students, it doesn’t sink in until they get home and are overwhelmed with the day-to-day liberties we take for granted. It is difficult to complain when you interact with and get to know someone that hasn’t slept with a roof over their head for months or years, but has a better attitude and outlook on life than most of us. It pushes us to reconsider a great deal about what we believe and work toward on a daily basis. Service doesn’t end with this experience, it forms roots and begins to take hold through the rest of our lives."

Doty is proud of the students who chose to take the alternative spring break trip, for making the choice to go in the first place, and especially for the personal growth they found along the way. She said, "Each one of these students selflessly gave up their spring break in hopes of making a complete stranger’s life a little better. How many of us can honestly look back at our college experience at 18,19, 20 or 21 years old and say we would do the same? They reinforce my faith in humanity each year."