The College volunteers in ‘The Big Easy’

By Courtney Wirths
Features Editor  

It has been over nine years since Hurricane Katrina and the city of New Orleans filled the front page headline. Even almost a decade after the tremendous wind and rain, the city remains damaged and in need of assistance. Recognizing the need for volunteers, the College’s Alternative Break Club takes trips south during winter, spring and summer breaks to help rebuild the Mardi Gras city. 

“Disasters can only get better if something is done to bring it back up,” said junior elementary education and iSTEM major Toni D’Amato. D’Amato has been involved in the club since her freshman year and has gone of two of the club’s summer trips to New Orleans. 

Students work in New Orleans to help rebuild homes damaged and destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Pagliaro)
Students work in New Orleans to help rebuild homes damaged and destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Pagliaro)

During her first summer volunteering, D’Amato’s group helped to rebuild the home of an elderly man named Wendell.

“He would stop by to give us food and help out while we were rebuilding his home,” she said. “ He always taught us his church songs on break time and really gave us a feel of the culture of New Orleans.”

This past summer, the group had the opportunity to return to Wendell’s new home, take a tour of the finished house and listen to the thank-you speech he gave at the home’s dedication.

“It brought so many people together to have the greatest feelings of hope,” D’Amato said.

The Alternative Break Club spent this summer on Desire Street in New Orleans. 

Students who travel with the College’s ABC developing lasting friendships on just one trip of volunteering together. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Pagliaro)
Students who travel with the College’s ABC develop lasting friendships on just one trip of volunteering together. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Pagliaro)

“Our homeowner was an older blind man who was living in this large two story house all by himself,” junior nursing major Elena Shupak said. “ The downstairs was completely empty, with only studs and beams, and he was living on the second story with no running water and hardly any electricity.”

The club worked for the entire week installing hardwood floors on the second floor and finishing some of the construction that needed to be completed down on the first floor, she explained. 

The locations for the clubs trips are ultimately chosen by the ABC’s executive board, but members of the club can provide input if they wish, according to club member and sophomore finance major Jonathan Sheridan. Due to the tremendous need for volunteers, however, the club plans to continue returning to New Orleans in the future. 

“A group of 20 TCNJ students got in cars to drive over a thousand miles barely knowing each other,” he said. “And when we go in the cars to come back to N.J., I knew I had made some life-long friends.”

In addition to the experience of volunteering, travelling to a new city and making new friends, the club’s members emphasize that it’s the people of the city that have made the most impact on their lives while they have been in the away. 

“They teach you through not just their words, but with  their actions that nothing in life is ever too tragic to recover from,” Shupak said. “Their positive spirits shine through in the darkest of moments, and that is something I never forget to take home with me when I leave Louisiana.”