Bonner Scholars lend a helping hand in New Orleans

For 39 of the College’s Bonner Scholars, 2008 “started with a bang” – of the hammer that is.

While most students were home, reuniting with high school friends or still recovering from a New Year’s celebration, the Bonner Scholars devoted a week of their Winter breaks to rebuilding homes in New Orleans while blogging about the experience at tcnjbonners.wordpress.com.

On Jan. 12, students departed from New Jersey. For many of the students, this was their first service trip to New Orleans.

Hurricane Katrina struck the New Orleans area in August of 2005, and although two and a half years have passed, it will take many more to restore the city to its former glory.

For many, Hurricane Katrina was merely something they only heard about and saw secondhand media accounts of, much like the tsunami that struck Asia in December of 2004. It seemed as if it was affecting a foreign nation.

The Bonner Scholars visited New Orleans because the destruction that Hurricane Katrina caused is, unfortunately, not yet a part of the history of the United States.

The students who participated realize something that the American public may not: Hurricane Katrina is still affecting thousands of displaced individuals.

As Brian Hackett, sophomore political science major, explained, “I had ‘reverse expectations.’ I never expected (the damage) to be as bad as it was.” He was under the impression that he would be working to “tie up loose ends,” not help rebuild one of the thousands of homes that remain untouched well after the hurricane struck.

While this was Hackett’s first trip to New Orleans, for junior political science major Michael Strom, this was his fourth service trip since Hurricane Katrina.

“I can say with complete honesty that this is the most successful service trip that I have ever been a part of,” Strom wrote in the blog.

When Strom, who wrote an original song about his experience, first visited New Orleans eight months after Hurricane Katrina, he possessed the same mentality as Hackett – he was under the impression that he was there to finish the recovery efforts and see the last phases in effect.

Todd Stoner, senior political science and international studies major, had a clear reason for making his second trip to New Orleans. As he wrote in the blog, “We are here, or I am here rather, because we can no longer wait for the government to act.”

While in a home in New Orleans, Stoner observed that the only thing that indicated how much time had passed since the hurricane struck was the mold that has progressively crept up the sides of the rotting walls.

Although the damage to these homes is devastating, for Stoner, the trip to New Orleans revealed more than the struggle of the destroyed houses and lives. He is concerned with the social impact that this tragedy has had on the United States.

“Class. It is?a forbidden word in America. … We grow up viewing class and race conflict as a thing of the past, yet both cannot be ignored when viewing government response following Rita and Katrina,” Stoner wrote.

Sophomore finance major and attendant of the trip Tariq Shabazz said, “I saw a lot of things that the media missed.” Recently, there has been little in the news regarding the status of New Orleans. Instead, the news reports are flooded with buzz over the looming 2008 election.

One thing Shabazz, Strom and Stoner found particularly appalling after visiting New Orleans was the fact that not one presidential candidate has established, or even mentioned, development of a recovery plan.

Stoner said, “There are three things that you won’t hear a presidential candidate talk about: poverty, class and New Orleans.”

Because of the sparse government involvement, religious organizations, non-profits and volunteers like the Bonner Scholars are taking the initiative to assist New Orleans homeowners.

If the recovery efforts in New Orleans are ever completed, volunteers like the Bonner Scholars will be responsible for rebuilding an incredible city.