Volunteering in the Big Easy

Exonians help out in communities hit hard by Katrina and explore the history and culture of New Orleans.

August 30, 2018
Exonians visit New Orleans.

A group of service-minded Exonians lent their hands rebuilding homes, gardens and neighborhood parks during a weeklong stay in New Orleans this summer.

Working with several local organizations, the 15 students and their chaperones — English instructors Courtney Marshall and Kelly Flynn — helped recycle building materials, sort through food pantry donations and revitalize community spaces as well. Between projects, students learned about the hurricane's lasting effects on the city's infrastructure and soaked in the sights and sounds of New Orleans.

The trip was one of 16 summer travel programs and nearly 40 off-campus offerings sponsored by Global Initiatives this year. 

Excerpts from the participants' daily recaps are shared below. For more highlights, check out the group's Instagram page. 

Rebuilding and recycling

We set off to the Green Project, a non-profit that safely disposes of paint ruined by Katrina and recycles donated housing material and furniture. We split into three groups and organized windows, stripped nails from wood and cleaned out the rusted paint cans. ... Kat, the Green Project coordinator, answered our questions about the effects the hurricanes had on the New Orleans area and the difference between demolition and deconstruction. We learned that even though demolition of houses is a lot faster and more cost efficient, deconstruction [and reuse] is way more environmentally friendly and saves sentimental value.

—Yaseen, Velen and Renee

recycling paint with @thegreenproject

A post shared by PEA New Orleans Summer 2018 (@pea_nola2018) on

Grit and purpose

We did some hard work ... from learning to cope with a rapid conveyor belt as we sorted food, to getting nails out of tough wood, to opening long-rusted cans of paint through any means possible (to divert paint from being dumped in the bayou). There were fears to overcome (being on a ladder) and new skills to learn (washing windows without smearing them worse). There was work that took muscle and perseverance, like digging postholes and carrying heavy materials. Above all, there was the heat, as well as humidity that hovered at the edge of thunderstorms. 

But we were grateful to have real, necessary work, and no one complained — not once. ...

—Kelly Flynn, English Instructor

Beautifying the front of the house!

A post shared by PEA New Orleans Summer 2018 (@pea_nola2018) on

Getting to know the city

We drove to the French Quarter and split up for 40 minutes to explore the streets. Food, shops, and many different people scattered every corner and path. ... Soon we came back together and with the direction of our tour guide, we learned about the incredible history of New Orleans.

After seeing the streets, we went to the Presbytère Museum to learn more about Hurricane Katrina and Mardi Gras. One of the many things we saw in the museum was the dark reality of what happened while evacuating the people of New Orleans during the hurricane. ...

We ended the excursion at Café Du Monde, where we had amazing French donuts – beignets – and explored the French Market.

— Richard, Darja and Leni

Joy in togetherness

Students made up nicknames for each other, enjoyed watching local folks two-step and waltz at the Rock 'n' Bowl, danced the Zydeco Shuffle, were willing to be holy fools for bowling, and got super enthusiastic about fried chicken (and jambalaya and po'boys and snowballs and beignets). ...

They sang together while sorting food, sang in the vans, sang while they cleaned. They played Uno and watched movies and took lots and lots of pictures. Finally, in our last reflection time together, they celebrated one another by saying something they had admired about their [travel partners]. The words "strong," "kind," and "supportive" came up a lot.

—Kelly Flynn, English Instructor

Exonians work hard and dance hard! #dancebreak #powerdrillskills

A post shared by PEA New Orleans Summer 2018 (@pea_nola2018) on

Community matters

Editor's note: The students met regularly with their volunteer coordinator, Caitlin, who served as a liaison with their community partners. A member of AmeriCorps, she offered advice to students interested in incorporating community service into their college experiences or future careers. 

Ms. Marshall outlined some takeaways from their first meeting with her: 

  1. Take pride in our work. It will be here long after we are gone.
  2. Build relationships with the community partners we encounter. Follow their work after we leave. ...
  3. Learn more about the work that’s already happening and more about New Orleans. When doing service, ask for guidance from the community and find out if what you’re offering is what the people who live there want or need.
  4. Every community has its issues, and everybody has an issue close to their heart. If we like serving in New Orleans, think about what we can do in our own community. 
  5. Drink water and get lots of sleep!

—Courtney Marshall, English instructor