Drew Contingent Spends Winter Break Volunteering in New Orleans

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Student-led group rebuilds homes in area devastated by Hurricane Katrina

February 2020 – Sixteen members of the Drew University community spent their winter break lending a hand to the rehabilitation efforts still underway in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward.

Bri Rooks co-led the trip and created a video montage of the group's efforts.

The team of 14 students, including student leaders Maïmouna Kanté C’20 and Bri Rooks C’22, and two staff members worked on repairing two residential properties in the community most devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

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Painting siding before installation.

Drew’s Volunteer Without Borders group has now made two trips, one in January 2020 and another in May 2019, to provide relief effort for the neighborhood still in great need of aid.

“I could not wrap my head around the fact that it has been 15 years since the hurricane hit and there is still so much work to do,” said Rooks.

“Pre-Katrina, 90 percent of the households in the Lower Ninth Ward were owned by black people,” added Kanté, an environmental studies & sustainability and biology double major and public health minor.

“Fifteen years later, white New Orleans seems to have recovered and black New Orleans has not. The differences are visible and unacceptable.”

The group partnered with lowernine.org, an organization in New Orleans that works with local homeowners whose houses were damaged by Katrina.

Drew volunteers spent long hours painting, sanding, pulling out electrical systems, preparing and installing dry wall, digging holes to support wheelchair-accessible ramps, breaking down a ceiling, building benches, putting up siding and doing yard work.

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One of the two houses the Drew volunteers worked on.

The two trips, the first occurring in May 2019, provided meaningful learning experiences on several fronts for those involved.

First, it was an eye-opening look at the true devastation of the area.

“The Lower Ninth Ward had an estimated 5,600 homes prior to Katrina. Now there are about 1,500,” said Shawn Spaventa, Director of Instructional Technology, one of the two faculty members on the trip.

“Every house is next to or across from a vacant lot.”

The group stayed in the neighborhood most impacted by Katrina and were a 10-minute walk from where the levees and flood walls broke, causing immense damage to the area.

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Sawing down wood for the new porch.

On the way to the two worksites, the volunteers passed empty plots reclaimed by nature, houses in visible disrepair and a few brand new homes in place of demolished ones. The group also spoke with local homeowners who shared their stories.

“During the trip, we did not just learn—we experienced,” said Kanté.

Students and faculty alike were also amazed at the volunteers’ spirit.

“Each volunteer expressed kindness, gratitude and love in their own way,” said Kanté. “They brought the support that we each needed when facing challenges.”

“One standout of the trip is the empathy, curiosity and get-it-done attitude of the Drew students,” said Spaventa.

“They’re thoughtful, inclusive and care deeply about the world around them. They are more accustomed to thinking outside the box, dealing with change and working within a team than my generation.”

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The Drew group together outside lowernine.org.

“We were able to make connections with classes we have taken at Drew. It was truly an interdisciplinary experience,” said Kanté.

Drew’s connection to New Orleans has roots dating back to the early aftermath of Katrina. From 2006 to 2012, members of Drew University and Centenary College spent the first week of each January assisting the relief efforts in the area. Five years ago, another group of 35 Drew students and five staffers made the trip as part of the St. Bernard Project.

The current group of volunteers has no plans of stopping now and would like to host multiple trips a year to continue contributing to the support effort the region still needs.

“One thing I know for sure is that the nation still needs to come together to help the people who live here,” said Rooks.

“Recovery is a process that is best addressed together,” added Kanté.

Photos from Shawn Spaventa and Jaz’mine Freddie C’20

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