The College’s Alternative Break Club kicked off the new year by putting more pieces of New Orleans back together after Hurricane Katrina shattered the city almost nine years ago.
On Saturday, Jan. 4, over 100 students from the club traveled to Louisiana to help “Project Homecoming,” a nonprofit organization in New Orleans, rebuild homes in the city that were destroyed because of the natural disaster in 2005.
“The group did everything from finalizing and painting homes that are almost completed to starting construction and demolition on new projects for Project Homecoming,” junior graphic design major and ABC treasurer Jeremy Nevitt said.
Alumnus Michael Strom founded ABC in November of 2008. Before he graduated from the College in 2009, Strom organized seven trips to “The Big Easy” with the help of the Bonner Center and the Phi Alpha Delta fraternity.
While New Orleans was no longer in the news years after the disaster, Strom knew the city was still desperate, which is the reason he decided to organize the trips.
“After each trip, I would receive many messages from people who were interested in me planning another trip for them to participate in,” Strom said. “At that point it seemed certain that a club should be formed.”
For five years, members of ABC have traveled across the country to work on numerous projects. In addition to visiting New Orleans multiple times, they also traveled to West Virginia in the spring of 2012 to work on building and repairing homes for the homeless.
“This was important to the club because we wanted to ensure that our efforts were felt in more than one place,” alumna and former ABC president Katie Gallagher said.
Fundraising is what makes ABC’s trips possible, according to Nevitt. The members participate in canning at local businesses and hosting fundraisers at restaurants, and the proceeds help cover three meals a day for the members during their trips, as well as lodging and gas for transportation. ABC’s largest fundraiser takes place every fall at Terhune Orchards in Princeton, in which they volunteer for the farm and help with its fall activities.
This year’s trip to New Orleans was junior sociology major Kaitlin West’s first trip with ABC. She assisted others in rebuilding a house on Annunciation Street for a grandmother of seven. Four of them will be living with her in the new house, according to West.
The most “eye-opening” part of West’s experience, she said, was looking inside of the devastated houses that were in shambles and seeing belongings that still remained — almost nine years after the hurricane struck.
“There were toys, clothing, shoes … everything imaginable,” West said. “It made me realize that this city will never go back to the way it was without the help of volunteers.”
Senior statistics major Matt Rusay assisted in painting the interior of a home, as well as breaking concrete and leveling the ground in its backyard.
“It was an amazing experience,” Rusay said. “You didn’t realize how much help the city needs even eight and a half years later.”
But there’s also a token of reflection given to the volunteers after their exposure to a forgotten reality.
“There’s a gratitude taken from the trip after meeting people who have lost everything and can be so grateful for the small imprint we put in their lives from our one week of helping,” Nevitt said.
Later this year, ABC is looking to help rebuild the Jersey Shore every month with the Bonner Center and Here for Home, as they have done in the past. They will travel to New Orleans again this spring and summer, and in 2015 they will plan a trip to Central Florida to house kids with various disabilities.
Founder Michael Strom is pleased with ABC’s progress and continuous efforts to reach out to the less-fortunate all over the country.
“It is a testament to the will of the members and the enormous benefits that come through these service programs that the club has endured and continues to grow year after year,” Strom said. “I could not be more proud of them.”