The following are two reflections by Elms College students who went to New Orleans as part of their service trip.

The students were accompanied by Eileen Kirk and Dee Ward.

By Amanda Rivera

Class of 2010

This year for spring break I had a choice between staying home sleeping all day and staying out all night or doing something meaningful with my time. I chose to do something meaningful and signed up to go on Elms College’s alternative spring break trip to New Orleans. This trip would include spending the majority of my time building a house for a Hurricane Katrina victim as a part of Habitat for Humanity.

 I had done Habitat for Humanity before and worked on houses in Springfield in Holyoke but the work I did this year in New Orleans was truly back breaking. I had never done such hard labor in my life. On the first day I worked on the roof. Getting up the ladder was fine, but taking that first step on a slant is hard, especially when you’ve got sand on the bottom of your sneakers. I did preparatory work, hammering and such, for roof shingling that whole day. The second day we went back to the site and getting on the roof was a lot easier. This time I was actually putting on shingles. On my down time, I sat at the roof and looked around at the neighborhood I was in. What I saw was unbelievable. I saw a handful of fixed houses surrounded by a sea of still condemned and unfixed houses. Each house still sports a spray painted X; you pray the number at the bottom of the X is a zero.  Rarely do you see a car go by or a child playing, because this neighborhood that was once filled with life and color is practically a ghost town. It is hard to believe that Hurricane Katrina happened five years ago when you still see its effects everywhere. After lunch that day, one of the site leaders led us to another house. It had been broken into and the insulation was ripped out. My group’s job was to quickly stuff the fiber glass back in the walls before a group came in to put up dry wall. I asked why anyone would do this– would rip down insulation and got an answer. It happens a lot and people will steal wiring and metal so they can sell it. Some people are still desperate.

The third day on the build was the hardest morning to wake up because I was very sore. On this day I wanted to do some of the other jobs. I started by nailing wood together for the foundation of another house that would be built down the street. I then helped some of my group members shovel dirt from a huge pile into a wheelbarrow that was carried away by two other people.

After a while, I stopped shoveling and carried the wheelbarrow and found out where the dirt was going. It was going under the house, to get rid of the huge puddles under it. I then began to help two girls underneath the house push the dirt into the puddles until it became mud and the dirt disappeared. There was not much room under the house, only enough room to crouch over. Needless to say, after pushing heavy mud around, my back was on fire. When the puddles under the house were gone, we worked on puddles around the house. It was tedious. Near the end of the day, one of my friends asked if she could ask me questions on tape for her footage of our trip and I agreed. Her first question to me was something along the lines of, “How do you feel?” I looked at her, tired, hot, drenched in mud and achy and said, “ARE YOU KIDDING ME! I have hammered my hands a dozen times. My back is killing me. My hands have been rubbed raw from shoveling and carrying the wheelbarrow. I am covered from head to toe in mud. My feet haven’t been dry for two days and my face is burnt… I’VE NEVER BEEN HAPPIER.” It was true, I had my fair share of pains but it was all so worth it. I never got to meet the family that was going to live in the house, but I have touched their lives forever because I was not really building them a house. I was building them a place to feel safe in, a place to grow in, and a place they would be proud to call their own. I was building a home.

By Leanne Price

Class of 2013

The past week literally flew by. In some sense, I still feel like I should be on Spring Break, just so that I could be back in New Orleans helping those who really need it. Over the past few days I have been trying to process my time in New Orleans and put my feelings into words, but with so many distractions back here at home, and my little problem with procrastination, it has been hard to get things in order. I guess to start, I knew the I had wanted to do some other volunteer work here at the Elms, other than the Dorothy Day Program, but I didn’t really think that I would want to go overseas to do it—mainly because money is tight and I really didn’t have much support from anyone but my mother. So when a friend of mine, Keith [Godek] approached me about going to New Orleans for an alternative Spring Break, I was still a little skeptical about the whole thing, but I figured it was a way to make the difference I wanted to. But as the weeks passed, and more fundraising was done, and I saw how fast plans progressed, I found that the trip was all that I could think about.

Leanne Price and Keith Godek

In the time leading up to New Orleans, I would always say that this second time around, I would actually be getting the chance to help the people, instead of just walking around and looking at the devastation that Hurricanes Rita and Katrina caused. But this trip was a lot more personal. This trip was a chance for me to really fulfill something in myself that I felt I had been missing.  It would give me the confidence boost I needed–not because I have self-confidence issues, but because it would prove to me, that I am capable of so much more in life. There is so much that life has to offer and so much that I could be volunteering my time to—and this is just the start.

But looking back on the past week, being able to use my hands and knowing that the work I did was helping the Habitat workers and overall the family that would be living in the house when it is all done, made me feel so—proud, so humble—it was the sense of fulfillment that I was looking for. Every time I stepped back from the house and looked at the work all of us had done so far, I realized just how much I take things for granted. I get to the opportunity to do so much and I never take advantage of it. I never realize just how much I can afford and am privileged to receive within my family’s means. Realizing that so many children and teens in New Orleans my age don’t have these opportunities or privileges was an eye-opening experience. And just seeing how these people survive day by day just made me feel like there is so much more that I could do—that all the taking I do, should be replaced with giving.

As a child of God, I was raised and taught that I should help those who cannot help themselves. That I should be more accepting of differences and see each person as they are meant to be seen under the eyes of God. And this is something I tried to do with every person I met while in New Orleans. I greeted complete strangers with a smile and hello whenever we crossed paths. I tried my best to find the good in the people I met and worked with.   

One of the most profound moments for me was listening to the story of how people kept breaking into a rebuilt Habitat House to steal the copper wire for money. It was the third time that it had happened and it was our job to replace the insulation that had been torn down. However, the specific event from that experience that really touched me how Anacelis [Gonzalez] picked up a broom from the mobile warehouse and swept the destroyed insulation into one room. Just the fact that she went out of her way to do that really touched me in an overwhelming way.      

Besides what I witnessed on Bourbon Street, which is another experience in itself, during this trip, I had the chance to step out of my comfort zone. I really couldn’t have asked for anything more out of this experience. It challenged me, both mentally and emotionally. It showed me that I really do have people here at the Elms that I can talk to and depend on if I ever need them. And although I know this may never be read by any of the people I worked with at Habitat, or by anyone I helped build the house for, I wanted to thank them for this experience and allowing me to be a part of this major event in their life. This experience has affected me more than they will ever know. I thank Elms College, our awesome and supportive chaperones, Eileen and Denise and everyone on the trip for making this such a memorable experience for me.