By Elizabeth Zakaim
Junior psychology major Megan Vantslot spent part of her winter break cleaning bullets and heroin needles out of a bathtub in New Orleans, La., a city that is still trying to recover from the devastating Hurricane Katrina that tore it apart over 10 years ago. Vantslot is a member of the College’s Alternative Break Club (ABC). She is just one of the many students that volunteered over break rebuilding and repairing homes in New Orleans.
Vantslot participated in the New Orleans trip for the first time this year, although ABC has been running the trip for over seven years. This year, the students traveled down to New Orleans on Saturday, Jan. 9, and returned home on Sunday, Jan. 17. Although the trip lasted for eight days, only five days were spent volunteering. The other three days were allocated for traveling between New Orleans and New Jersey.
Vantslot and her volunteer group spent the week working on “a very worn-down house that was actually a hotspot for squatters,” she said.
“A few women walking down the street even thanked us for cleaning out the ‘crack house,’” Vantslot said. “It was clear to me that this place housed a lot of brokenness over the past few years after Katrina. Gutting the house was the first step in rebuilding and transforming it into a place for families to rent for cheap so they would be able to get back on their feet after a lot of bad luck with Katrina.”
Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005. New Orleans was hit hard by the storm and is still recovering over a decade later. Though about half the city lies above sea level, its average elevation is about six feet below and is completely surrounded by water. As such, nearly 80 percent of the city was underwater after the storm, according to CNN.
“It was shocking to me how many houses in the town are still looking so desolate,” Vantslot said. “I learned that the neighborhoods that were hit the hardest used to be bustling, and seeing them now with still many houses incomplete or not present at all was very hard.”
Junior special education major Jennifer Pagliaro has been involved in ABC since 2014 and now serves as its vice president.
“Our club was founded on the belief that we will not stop going to New Orleans until it is completely rebuilt,” Pagliaro said. “That belief has been something our executive board has held very close to our hearts, and so the majority of our trips are taken to New Orleans.”
ABC works with Project Homecoming, a volunteer organization in New Orleans that provides housing and volunteer work for the students. Project Homecoming helps those who lost their homes in Katrina buy land to rebuild.
“The people I have met in New Orleans are some of the most positive, compassionate and caring people. I have worked on homes where homeowners have stopped by and cooked lunch for all 30 people on the worksite,” Pagliaro said. “The people in New Orleans are amazing and continuing to go down there is a no-brainer when you see how appreciative and grateful everyone is for volunteer work.”
The club’s fundraising keeps the trip at a low cost. Students who fundraise the most are invited to come on the week-long trip, Pagliaro said. This year marked Pagliaro’s fifth trip to New Orleans through ABC.
“There’s a phrase — ‘New Orleans grabs you by the heart and never lets go’ — and there really is no better way to describe it,” said Pagliaro, who worked on demolishing a house that had not been touched since the hurricane. “Ten years later and still that house had not been worked on. A lot of the time, people say to me ‘Why are you still going down there? Isn’t the work done?’ and as hard as it is to believe, it’s not.”