I found that out when I accompanied five students from Western Michigan University during their spring break last week.
This trip was so different from spring break depicted in the 1960 film, "Where the Boys Are," where bands of youth took over Fort Lauderdale to indulge themselves in sun, fun, sex and alcohol.
To counter this image, college students in the early 1980s initiated the "Alternative Spring Break" where they formed a temporary community to learn about and reflect on social issues through practical experience. College service learning programs and campus ministries eventually picked up on this idea and then popularized them in the mid-2000s when students wanted to help people along the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
St. Thomas More Catholic Student Parish sponsored our trip to New Orleans as part of its campus ministry program. We worked through Beacon of Hope, a nonprofit organization that focuses on rebuilding the Gentilly neighborhood. We painted the exteriors of three houses and planted flowerbeds at one. Beacon of Hope provided us with tools while the homeowners provided paint and plants.
We met students from other religious-oriented groups, namely Hillel (Foundation for Jewish Campus Life) and the Church of the Brethren.
Then, there were other students not affiliated with any group. As one purple-haired, body-pierced organizer said regarding their motivation: "It's just something you should do."
Nearly seven years after Hurricane Katrina, most Americans have forgotten about its destruction and few understand the city's lingering recovery effort after 80 percent of it flooded due to 53 breaks in levees designed and managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. During the storm a 200-foot barge improperly moored broke loose and crashed into floodwalls and added to the damage.
New Orleans has done a lot of reconstruction and in many places visitors wouldn't see any signs of Katrina damage. However, about 100,000 Orleaneans out of nearly a half million have not returned home, most of them people of color. City officials bolted the doors of their houses so they couldn't return or retrieve any of their belongings. Other people couldn't get a fair price for their property and abandoned it.
Rents in low-income areas doubled and those who lived in public housing were shut out when renovations reduced the number of available units. Grocery stores (23 of them), banks and shopping malls closed and didn't re-open. Public transportation networks imploded. Charity Hospital, which served the low-income population and didn't flood, was closed with equipment still inside. Historic homes were torn down to make way for modern housing. Although unemployment was only eight percent (2010) due to all the rebuilding, the homeless population doubled after the storm.
Students learned these things during a four-hour orientation program at the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal (CELSJR). However, they were advised not to pity the people but to be in solidarity with them, as summed up in a quote from the Aboriginal Activists Group of Queensland (1970s):
"If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."
At CELSJR the students also learned something about "simple living." For six nights we lived with 47 other people in three dormitory rooms with bunk beds -- and only five showers and three bathrooms. You wouldn't think it could work, especially since most of the students were women, but it did. Students were very patient, flexible and cunning to get their needs met. Groups also split up the cleaning tasks over the week.
In the morning we made our own breakfast of eggs, cereal, bagels or fruit and were given sack lunches to take with us to the work site. We had dinner at 6 p.m.
However, the real story of Alternative Spring Break was about meeting people who had suffered the tragedy of losing just about everything they owned.
On the first work day, we painted Charles and Emily's (not their real names) back porch and wooden fence. The floodwaters covered their one-story house up to the roofline. They were about to retire, their house was paid for and they had just remodeled the bathroom when Katrina hit. They returned home in 2009 after three years of rebuilding -- and enduring much contractor fraud.
They acquired a lot of second-hand furnishings "out of love," said Emily, "and that's why we're keeping all of it."
Charles, who has Parkinson's Disease and has survived seven surgeries, helped us paint. He also showed us some of his family's documents like their insurance policies, marriage license, birth certificates, which were partially damaged by water and mold. Many people didn't have any documents proving their identity, which became a huge problem when they tried to make insurance claims.
Emily made us a lunch of sandwiches, fruit and chips out of gratitude for our help.
On the second day, we went to Jack and Sandra's house to plant flower boxes, move plants, and plant small bushes on the side of the house. This family was among the luckier ones we met even though they lost everything, too. They evacuated to Houston, Texas, where elder son, Sam, started high school and graduated four years later. He is now going to Delgado Community College in New Orleans to study business.
Jack was able to find another job with the same company. Sandra, a teacher, sorely missed home. Then, when the family returned, she learned that she no longer had a job because all the city's public school teachers were let go to make way for a new charter school system. She now cares for her aunt, who the students came to love for her jokes, songs and concern over their cuts and bruises.
On the third day, we worked at Maybelline's house where we had to scrape the eaves and overhangs before we applied the beige-colored paint. When we arrived, she invited us to a breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausages, grits and biscuits. Before we left, she served us stewed chicken with pasta and red sauce. During these meals she told us her story.
Maybelline was a special education teacher all her life but then went into retirement after officials dissolved the public schools. She had successfully evacuated the city but moved 15 times before she moved back into her house. While away, she still received utility bills even though the electricity and plumbing were not working. After she returned, she lived alone without utilities for nine months. Those few living in the neighborhood went to bed around 6 p.m. and called each other on cell phones to make sure they were all right.
Maybelline did receive some FEMA support but had to make sure she kept all her receipts to prove that she purchased things allowable under the program. She still has the receipts in brown paper bags. She also told us how the insurance companies cheated people out of money.
On the last day, we painted Christina's house -- with 27 students from other campus ministry programs. They had been working all week on the two-story, wooden house that required scraping and caulking prior to painting.
Oh, yes, we did do some tourist activities. You cannot travel to a place like New Orleans without studying some of its historical and cultural aspects!
Upon our arrival after an 18-hour drive from Michigan, we headed to the Mississippi River for a boat ride on the steam-powered Natchez with a paddle wheel, calliope and all, to learn about the river and the city's importance as a port.
On Sunday, we attended a Jazz Mass at St. Augustine Parish in Treme, a neighborhood adjacent to the French Quarter that was founded by slaves and free people of color in 1793. A musical combo and choir let you know you were in New Orleans as it led people in song.
After Mass, we walked to Congo Square in Louis Armstrong Park, where Black slaves used to hold picnics on Sundays. Baba Luther honors that tradition by teaching people how to play African drums. Every Sunday, he sits near a 300-year old "Grandmother Tree" as Mama Sula incenses the area. During the week she also incenses different parts of the city for healing.
Of course, we visited Café du Monde on the French Quarter that is famous for its beignets, a French donut with powered sugar on top. We visited Bourbon Street where the tourists go, but also roamed Frenchmen Street where the locals go. It's has a Southern-style Greenwich Village feel to it and we danced to reggae music and listened to a street band.
One night we went on a ghost tour and heard not only some gruesome tales about the city's past residents. Death has come in various ways, and Orleaneans are matter of fact about it. After all, New Orleans is home of the jazz funeral where people honor the passing of a loved one with a street parade and then celebrate that the Angel of Death missed them -- this time.
It's not that the people are morbid but rather that they prefer to invest their energies in a joie de vivre, which in New Orleans comes in the form of good food and good music. It was in this same spirit that people were able to start all over again after the heartbreak and hardship they endured with Katrina.
On our last night we had an elegant seafood dinner on the balcony at the French Market Restaurant. As we ate, a golden full moon rose over the Mississipppi River.
The students listened intently and with compassion to the stories of all the people we met and interacted with them with ease. They tried foods that were strange to them like alligator, crawfish, oysters, gumbo, muffalettas and the sloppy but delicious po' boys.
They were good-spirited throughout the trip, including during the long drives in our cramped parish van. They did their work in a caring and professional way and remained enthusiastic even as they became sunburned, paint-splattered and tired of climbing up and down ladders.
If anyone doubts the strength and capacity of the next generation, don't. The host of young people I met during Alternative Spring Break is evidence enough to believe that this upcoming generation will make our world a better place.