During last year's holiday break, when many university students were basking on beaches or hitting the slopes, two groups of Willamette students went to New Orleans to help families whose homes had been battered by Hurricane Katrina. The original trip, sponsored by Willamette's Take a Break program, filled so fast that spillover students hastily organized a second, informal trip with assistance from the Lilly Project, a University program that helps students find their spiritual calling or vocation.
Working with the United Methodist Storm Recovery Center, the students lived simply, slept on the floor of a local church and cooked their own meals. They worked side by side with homeowners and spent days shoveling mud and tearing out walls and floors.
"The destruction was overwhelming," says Lindsey Mizell ’07. "I didn't expect that five months after the storm." Many homes had to be abandoned, but where there was a possibility of saving them, the students stripped them down to the studs. Oily muck covered everything in sight, but black mold was the most overwhelming challenge; 'Katrina cough' had left numerous families unable to salvage their homes. "We wore protective gear," says Sean Muller ’08, "but by the end of the day, our masks were full of dust and mold spores."
It was a lesson in humility. I think we learned a lot about the human spirit. People there have taken a hit I can't imagine taking.
After ceilings and walls had been ripped down to a bare shell and rubbish piled to the roofline in front of each home, students posed with the owners or wrote 'Take care, God bless, Willamette University, January 2006' on exposed walls. "We wanted people there to know that people from other parts of the country were thinking about them," Muller says.
The Take a Break students weren't alone. In the wake of Katrina's devastation, the Willamette community quickly mobilized in a Not unto ourselves alone are we born show of support. The University offered a tuition-free semester to four displaced students and matched donations from students, faculty and staff, sending $58,500 to the American Red Cross. The student club Blazing Hearts and Wild Minds created and sold 'Katrina Relief' bracelets across campus to raise funds, and each undergraduate class competed with other classes to raise money by selling beaded Mardi Gras necklaces. The Panhellenic Council sponsored a Red Cross blood drive, Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity organized a benefit event with live bands, and students set up jars for spare change around campus. The Chaplain's Office collected and sent health kits, while Hatfield Library dedicated their annual book sale revenues to an academic library damaged by the hurricane. TIUA students and staff raised $700, which was matched by the Kaneko Foundation, and Willamette's food service, Bon Appetit, made a corporate contribution.
And long after the media had moved on to other burning issues of the day, students continued to care. Last March, two more Take a Break student groups, sponsored by Community Service Learning, headed to Texas and Mississippi to assist hurricane refugees and others. This January, students will volunteer in Louisiana again, and Mizell signed on as a full-time volunteer in September.
"What we realized is that — even with lack of sleep and physical exhaustion — we really can make a difference," Muller says of the experience. "And it was a lesson in humility. I think we learned a lot about the human spirit. People there have taken a hit I can't imagine taking. They've been stripped down to nothing, lived through months of this, and they still have the spirit of hope."
Willamette students heading to the Gulf Coast to continue Hurricane Katrina clean-up might run into a familiar face: Nicole Lucas ’05. Lucas spent the past year working to rebuild people's homes and lives through her service for the Southeast Region of AmeriCorps*NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps).
Lucas is in her second year with the program, whose mission is to strengthen communities and develop leaders through team-based national and community service. She spent the past year working on disaster relief in New Orleans and Mississippi with organizations like FEMA, Habitat for Humanity and the Florida Keys Nature Conservancy.
"I have learned countless things about myself, the government, human kindness and life in general from serving in an area so severely stricken by disaster," she says. "The one thing that has struck me the most is the level of resilience of the human soul. I am amazed and humbled by the depth of strength many Gulf residents carry in their hopes of rebuilding a place they so dearly love."
Lucas is now a support team leader overseeing seven teams in the Gulf region, including one that recently built a house in Bay St. Louis, Miss., with Habitat for Humanity.
"I signed up [for NCCC] because I wanted to serve and strengthen communities, be part of a team and challenge myself," she says. "Hurricane Katrina, though, was one of my primary reasons for signing up for a second term. I believe passionately in all the good work the program is doing and morally felt I couldn't leave an area that is still in so much need."