BGSU volunteers in New Orleans

Clinton Stephens (left) and senior Naomi Valdez, an international studies major from Findlay, work on a home in Mobile, Ala., last December. Both will be part of the contingent traveling to New Orleans this week.

BGSU volunteers turn attention to New Orleans

This holiday season, BGSU is doubling its efforts to help Gulf Coast residents still recovering from the 2005 hurricane season.

Following final exams last December, 52 BGSU students boarded a bus for Mobile, Ala., where they worked on homes from Dec. 17-22. This year, 109 students are scheduled to take two buses to New Orleans for a similar trip from Dec. 16-22.

Divided into seven groups, the BGSU volunteers will spend one day in metropolitan St. Bernard Parish, tearing drywall, flooring and ceiling material out of homes still in need of repair more than 15 months after Hurricane Katrina struck the city. For several other days, beginning at 7:30 a.m., the students will help build Habitat for Humanity homes elsewhere in New Orleans.

“It’s terrifying how much has to be done” in St. Bernard Parish alone, said Clinton Stephens, who was there in early November to plan for the trip. Coordinator of student organization and community service programs in the University’s Office of Campus Involvement, Stephens will accompany the students along with Dennis Bubrig, assistant dean of students in campus involvement, and Ana Brown, assistant director of the President’s Leadership Academy.

About one-sixth of St. Bernard Parish’s previous residents have returned since the storm, but almost all of them are living in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers in their front yards, Stephens said. “I didn’t see one home that was returned to livable condition,” he added, saying the “government infrastructure is still overwhelmed” by the scope of the problem.

After last December’s mission to Mobile, taking a second trip to the Gulf Coast was never really in question. “We had so many students who were asking for us to go again,” recalled Stephens, noting that the decision was made both in response to that interest and to show the students what community involvement entails and how they can be part of it.

He wanted student participation in the planning process, which began in September and whose leaders included two students who had gone to Alabama—Brian Dixon of Columbus and Ken Kozlosky of Mentor-on-the-Lake.

“I had never done any kind of trip like that before,” said Kozlosky, a senior, about going to Mobile. “I wanted to make sure there was another trip. It was such a valuable experience.”

The communication disorders major added that he believes spending more time this year building houses with Habitat for Humanity will leave the volunteers feeling more hopeful about progress where they’re working. “I think that’s going to give a whole different outlook,” he predicted, saying that with double the number of students this year, “we’re hoping to make twice as much of an impact.”

The student planners were involved with every major decision, including this year’s destination, which they researched, Stephens said. They considered Mobile again, as well as Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle, before settling on New Orleans, “primarily because the need is still there” and because the city now has a well-organized support system in place for incoming volunteers, he explained.

Mobile already had such a network last year to keep itself from being overwhelmed by volunteers, Stephens pointed out. That wasn’t the case in New Orleans, but in that regard, “it’s a well-oiled machine now,” he said.

Student signup for the trip began Nov. 13 at the campus involvement office, where the first volunteer arrived at about 3:45 a.m., according to Stephens. When the office opened at 8 a.m., “we had 80 people in line,” he said.

“That morning, when we opened the door, I decided we were going to take the second bus,” and all of the roughly 100 seats on the charter buses were filled by noon that day, he remembered.

Two of the early arrivals were Colleen Verbus, a senior from Hinckley who said roughly 30 students were waiting outside the office when she joined them at about 6:30 a.m., and Jackie Schroeder, a junior from Ottawa who got in line shortly thereafter.

Verbus’s motivation was to aid “a good cause” while also earning volunteer hours required for her community engagement scholarship from the University Bookstore; for Schroeder, signing up was a spur-of-the-moment thing. But both said their families have been supportive—Verbus, a journalism major, recalled her mother’s reaction (“That’s really awesome”) to the news that she was going, while Schroeder said that a Habitat for Humanity trip was something her sister had wanted, but was unable, to take while a student at Wright State University.

“I think it will be eye-opening,” the special education major added.

The buses will leave campus at 4 a.m. Dec. 16 from parking Lot 7, north of Offenhauer Towers, for the 18-hour ride to New Orleans. They will head back to Bowling Green the evening of Dec. 21, with arrival on campus expected by 3 p.m. the next day.

The students’ New Orleans base will be Camp Hope, a Habitat for Humanity volunteer center in St. Bernard Parish. Before Hurricane Katrina, it was an elementary school under construction; afterward, “the school board agreed to allow Habitat for Humanity to use the facility for volunteer quarters,” said Stephens, adding that while the building lacks heating and air conditioning, showers have been installed and occupants sleep on cots in the classrooms.

At a Dec. 3 orientation, students who went to Alabama a year ago told the first-time travelers what to expect in terms of emotional, as well as physical, toll. But respites will be available, too, Stephens noted, in the form of nightly activities that will allow students to experience New Orleans food, music and culture.

December 11, 2006