While many students might be traveling abroad for spring break service projects, there is also work to be done here in the United States. At Seattle University, students are preparing for the annual service trip to New Orleans over spring break.
This year, the staff advisers for the immersion are Alvin Sturdivant, associate vice president of student development, Gina Lopardo, director for the education abroad office, and Laurie Prince, the director for new student and family programs.
“It’s still amazing and shocking to me the amount of rebuilding that is required and necessary in New Orleans,” said Lopardo, who will be working the trip for the third time.
Shirts Across America is the organization that Seattle U works with to connect with communities in New Orleans that need assistance. Created by high school and college students in Seattle, Shirts Across America has donated over 50,000 volunteer hours in New Orleans since 2007.
The group at Seattle U has been meeting every other week for the past few months to prepare for the trip. A broad range of topics related to Hurricane Katrina and how people were affected by the natural disaster were discussed at these meetings, with outside speakers for some of them.
Sophomore Keegan Tasker and senior Kelsey McGarry are the two student co-leaders for the trip. This will be Tasker’s first time leading the immersion, with McGarry leading for the second year in a row.
“I went on the trip last year and it was really amazing,” Tasker said. “I feel like I got the opportunity to grasp the concept of serving ‘with’ instead of serving ‘for’ and that was something I hadn’t distinguished before.”
2015 marks the 10 year anniversary since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast region.
“It was super rewarding for us to meet the owner of the house that we helped build last year,” said senior Kimi Kogachi, who is going on the trip for a second time. “It was so nice hearing how he was determined to bring his community back.”
Numerous neighborhoods remain in shambles and many of the generational families still struggle to rebuild what they once had. Many homeowners were unable to reclaim their houses because the deeds were lost within the storm, removing the proof that they owned the house.
“Surprisingly enough, there are still many families that haven’t been able to get home,” Prince said. “We will be doing whatever work is necessary through [the St. Bernard Project] to do what needs to be done.”
What is unique about this service immersion is that a significant emphasis is placed on the mentality for students to go into the experience not thinking that they can fix anything. One of the main concerns surrounding these types of trips is the problematic savior complex. As more and more volunteers pour in to help the affected areas, some members of the group fear that they will be perceived as people of privilege coming to ‘save the day’ and leave as heroes. While that might not be their intention, there is a certain reputation around people coming in to communities with needs in a way that isn’t necessarily sustainable.
The purpose of the Seattle U New Orleans trip, however, is not to rescue areas from devastation, but instead to contribute to the long process of rebuilding. The more awareness that is gained and shared encourages societies to give back and informs others how they can best help and be involved.
Students on this trip will be given the opportunity to humanize this experience by immersing themselves in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods. More than just hard facts and numbers, they will be able to better grasp how dire the situation still is for much of the population in New Orleans, and in turn, a better idea of how it is in other areas.
“I so often think of service and developing areas as being international places,” said sophomore Claire Rawson, one of the members of the group. “I forget to stop and think that poverty is within our own country and there are places [here] that need help.”
The group will also be working with the St. Bernard Project once they arrive in the city. This organization sends the students to their specific work sites where they will learn what their specific jobs are and where the houses they will be working on are located.
The service immersion trip to New Orleans begins the first Saturday of spring break and the group returns the following Saturday. Fundraising for the trip has been a continuous process, along with members’ request to obtain appropriations from SGSU. Donations are still welcome.
Vikki may be reached at [email protected]