Students ‘Center’ ‘Alternative Break’ plans on helping ‘Humanity’; Habitat for the holidays; Bonner and ABC experience New Orleans

 As the new semester starts, you find yourself asking and answering the same question over and over again: “How was your break?”

It becomes so redundant that you can predict the answers: “good,” “long,” “boring” … you get the idea. Then you give the same mundane responses in return.

But while you were loafing on your couch watching “Jersey Shore” and scarfing down leftover Christmas cookies, 98 of your fellow students were participating in service projects across the country to help communities in need.

Members of the Bonner Center, Habitat for Humanity and Alternative Break Club (ABC) spent one week of their winter break participating in projects outside themselves; impacting individuals, communities and cities.

The College’s chapter of Habitat for Humanity took 24 students — its largest group ever — to Goldsboro, N.C. on Jan. 9, where they spent five days erecting plywood walls, installing insulation and establishing framework for various houses in the area.

Habitat’s co-president Jamie Raevis, senior biology major, said those in charge of planning the trip were drawn to the small neighborhood of Goldsboro, because they “wanted to find a place that … served people that were in need and deserve a good chance.”

Participant Melissa Tomlin, sophomore early childhood education and math, science and technology major, said, “I was expecting for us to do easy things. I really just thought we’d be painting the whole time.”

She was in for a surprise when she was thrown headfirst into difficult tasks like insulating a crawl space and framing the entire first floor of a house. But by the end of the week, Tomlin found, “I’m capable of doing much more than I thought.”

What surprised her most was the community’s positive response to her group’s work and the warm welcome they received.

“One of the homeowners on a block we were working on made us all lunch one day, and we weren’t even working on her house!” she said.

Raevis echoed that students form life-changing relationships with those owning the homes. “The most rewarding part,” he said, “is not the building itself or getting to see your own work, but definitely meeting the families that are going to get to live in these houses, because these families put in about 300 hours of sweat equity and they really deserve these houses.”

While Habitat built houses in N.C., Bonner Scholars and the College’s ABC shared similar experiences on two separate service trips to New Orleans.

Brittany Aydelotte, a Bonner Center program coordinator, organized and accompanied 23 students on the center’s annual journey south.

“We bring down first year Bonners so they can get to know each other better,” Aydelotte said. “It really opens their eyes to larger issues than just those right around our community.”

Priscilla Gutierrez, sophomore psychology major in the Urban Education Five Year Program, said, “I had heard that there was a lot of devastation in New Orleans, but I never realized it would be as bad as it was. It was really depressing driving around and seeing that five and a half years later, it still looked like this.”

She remembered sitting in the Bonner van, dumbfounded, as she looked out her window at all the destroyed houses. She was told that an X on the side of a house indicated it had been checked after Hurricane Katrina for inhabitants, and a number next to an X represented the house’s death toll.

“There were so many X’s on so many houses,” she said. “Being there and seeing the amount of devastation makes you think ‘Wow, this did really happen, it is a reality,’ especially when you see a number five painted on the side of a house.”

The Bonners worked on several projects in New Orleans, including rebuilding houses and painting a community mural.

“I really loved working on the mural because it was started by kids from the neighborhood and was about anti-violence … because a few months ago a two-year-old had been killed in a drive-by on that block,” sophomore English secondary education major Bridget McManus said. “I thought the mural was really fitting for the community after what they’d been through.”

Like Tomlin and those in Habitat, Gutierrez and McManus found their trip shaped by relationships they formed with the locals.

“The people there are truly amazing and it was a blessing to help in any way I could,” McManus said.

“I think that a lot of people who don’t live in New Orleans have forgotten about Katrina, but for the people that live there and for the volunteers like us who go there, we can’t forget it and I don’t think we’ll ever forget it,” Gutierrez said. “I’m really thankful to have the opportunity to do this, because … you don’t realize the extent of the devastation until you’re actually working hands-on in the city.”

The center plans on continuing its winter break tradition of helping the Hurricane Katrina rehabilitation effort. “As long as there’s work to do, we’ll keep going,” Aydelotte said.

ABC also made the 23-hour trek to New Orleans with 51 members looking to aid the city’s relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina.

For those in ABC, the trip is the culmination of countless hours of fundraising — volunteering at Terhune Orchards, working the Loop Bus and selling shot glasses and Homecoming 2010 sunglasses, since September started.

Katie Gallagher, ABC president and junior special education and English major, said, “Our mission is to provide students who might not necessarily have the opportunity to go on a trip with another organization … the chance to go on a service trip for an affordable price.”

The members were divided into groups, and each group was assigned a home to work on throughout the trip.

“It was very rewarding to see the progress you could make on a house in a single week, and even more so to know we had seven groups working on seven different houses making the same progress,” Gallagher said.

Like Gutierrez, she believes people should spread awareness of the desolation still facing most parts of New Orleans, so that volunteers continue to lend a hand until the job is done.

“I think the most important thing for anyone is to take what they’ve seen and learned, and bring it back home,” Gallagher said. “We met a lot of homeowners who said ‘take our stories back to New Jersey, let people know this is still going on.’”

Tina Pieciak, senior psychology major and ABC executive board member, also gained insight from the trip.

“I think what I took away the most out of this experience is how much people have an impact on one another,” Pieciak said. “It is the presence of the volunteers that keep coming back week after week, month after month that gives these affected families hope. The volunteers that come down to New Orleans not only rebuild the houses of impacted families, but they also rebuild the spirit of New Orleans.”