Not many people could say they gutted houses, lived without the amenities of easy living and saw firsthand the effects of Hurricane Katrina over their spring break, but for 19 Mills students who volunteered in New Orleans two weeks ago activism and rebuilding efforts were what spring break was all about.
"This sounded like such an amazing opportunity," freshwoman Helene Kelly-Isham said. Volunteering was "just something I needed to do."
Students volunteered through the Common Ground Collective, a nonprofit organization whose mission is "to provide short term relief for victims of hurricane disasters in the gulf coast region, and long term support in rebuilding the communities affected in the New Orleans area," according to the group's Web site.
Sophomore Cierra Bolin, who was the primary organizer for the trip, said that Common Ground was an ideal volunteer organization to work with because "they acknowledge the systematic oppression that's happening to the residents in New Orleans right now."
Despite the fact that the hurricane hit over 6 months ago, the students were shocked by how severe the devastation still is. "Some of the scenes in the ninth ward looked like early September [just after the hurricane hit New Orleans]," Bolin said.
Freshwoman volunteer Katherine Frey said that some buildings were "completely demolished. There were cars in the trees. I was amazed at how little had been done in six months."
Genny Evans, a freshwoman who also volunteered, said, "You can just imagine the damage from everything sitting in dirty, polluted water."
According to Frey, spray paint marks the outsides of buildings, relaying various warnings, such as "NE" for "No Entry" to warn of the presence of black mold, "TFW" for "Toxic Flood Water," "possible body found," the dates the buildings were checked and the number of bodies found dead out of the total number of family members who lived in the houses.
"You definitely have to mentally prepare yourself," Kelly-Isham said. "It was like reality hitting me in the face."
According to Frey, the United States government wants to bulldoze the entire lower ninth ward. "They think it's so decimated that they don't want to put the effort into rebuilding."
Frey, who visited the French Quarter with other Mills students, said that there "was a very drastic change" between the state of the French Quarter and the poorer parts of New Orleans. "It was really shocking because it looked like nothing had happened there," she said.
According to Kelly-Isham, volunteers had the option of either gutting a house for the day or filling other requests for volunteers throughout the neighborhood they were working in. Freshwoman volunteer Amelia Corbett-Green said the majority of volunteers with Common Ground were college students on their spring break. She described the volunteers as a "very hippy" and "liberal" community.
Kelly-Isham said those who gutted houses were given "Michelin-man-looking" attire that included two layers of gloves, a white Tyvex suit, a respirator and goggles. When this outfit was paired with 80 degree weather, 80 percent humidity, and
the effort exerted while gutting houses, Evans equated it to "intense hard labor."
Frey said some students took the opportunity to join a peace march led by Iraq Veterans Against the War. The march, which started in Alabama and ended in New Orleans, rallied for support for Hurricane Katrina victims and funding rebuilding efforts in areas that had been affected by Katrina.
Kelly-Isham said students stayed with other volunteers in Saint Mary of the Angels, a former school now used by Common Ground to feed and house the volunteers they organize in New Orleans. The school marked the highest point of the upper ninth ward of New Orleans.
Bolin said the school provided six working toilets for roughly 400 volunteers. According to Corbett-Green, volunteers lived off of generator power, slept in sleeping bags on classroom floors and used the school's gym as a cafeteria. She joked that the volunteers ate "mush" while in New Orleans.
Even so, "they were good about having healthy-ish foods," she said. Food options even included dishes for vegans and vegetarians.
Kelly-Isham said the students got a lot of support. She said her airline ticket was paid in full by the school and others who donated to help the students volunteer in New Orleans. "People were really generous and willing to help at any cost."
Dean of Students Joanna Iwata said Mills contributed to funding the trip through combined department efforts of the Office of Institutional Advancement, the "two arms" of the President's Office, the Mills Interfaith Council and the Division of Student Life.
Bolin said that contributions from the Office of Student Life and the Chaplain's Office totaled $4,700, and the Office of the President contributed $2,000 to pay for the students' airfare.
"It fits within our outreach in terms of community advocacy via student activities," she said. "They reflect the mission of the college."
All Mills volunteers stayed in New Orleans for at least four days, while the majority of the Mills volunteers stayed in New Orleans for a week. "I was really amazed at how many people sacrificed spring break," Frey said. "You could tell…[volunteers] were there for the right reasons."
For more information on how to volunteer in New Orleans visit www.commongroundrelief.org.