Summer got off to a steamy start for several Jewish students from the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and University at Albany who traveled to the Gulf Coast recently to help local residents and volunteers reconstruct communities damaged by Hurricane Katrina. But working long hours in plastic hazardous-materials suits in 90-degree-plus heat didn’t dampen their enthusiasm for helping hurricane victims who are still struggling to rebuild their lives.
“It’ll be a year in a few months, and that’s just amazing to me,” said Meg Schneider, who joined the UVA/Virginia Tech delegation just one day after her graduation from UVA to make the trip to New Orleans.
Schneider was one of nine students from the two campuses who participated in the five-day trip coordinated by the national volunteer organization Hands On USA, which arranged the group’s food, shelter and work projects during their stay. Sleeping in a local church at night while working at various sites during the day, the students became involved in several initiatives, such as building demolition and mold and debris removal. The intense heat made for uncomfortable – and often smelly – work, but any feelings of fatigue were quickly replaced by pride when they spoke with the homeowners whom they helped.
“Students really appreciated the opportunity to get to know the families whose houses we worked on,” said Jonah Zinn, the director of Jewish student life at UVA Hillel, who accompanied the group. “The personal connection was very powerful.”
In nearby Biloxi, Miss., a group of six Albany students continued the great work that Hillel’s winter and spring alternative-break participants began earlier this year by joining projects organized by the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). Tackling a wide range of tasks, such as roofing, sheet-rocking and landscaping, the students didn’t shy away from the endless hours of dirty work that remains to be done along the Gulf Coast.
“These students wanted to be there. There was no complaining,” said Jennifer Hankin, the Steinhardt JCSC fellow at University at Albany Hillel.
Hankin was pleased to see that while the students were still knee-deep in debris, they were already looking ahead to the fall semester and brainstorming ideas to educate their classmates about the continuing needs of hurricane survivors back on campus.
“Not much has been done to raise awareness on campus,” she said. “Seeing students become empowered under my watch was really great.”
Though the trips weren’t all work and no play – the UVA and Virginia Tech students managed to squeeze in a couple of nights on Bourbon Street – both groups recognized that they were representatives of the national Jewish community, and they kept the focus on the people they were helping rather than the nightlife.
“This really reinforces to me the real sense of collective responsibility Jews have for one another and for the greater world,” Zinn said.
“We were able to represent Judaism and being from the North in a positive light. The students were showing that tzedek is a Jewish value,” Hankin added.
And despite the legions of volunteers who have donated their time and effort to the rebuilding during the past nine months, the work is far from over. Schneider said she hopes that her experience encourages her friends and colleagues to take part in a similar program in the near future.
“You can’t forget. There’s still so much that needs to be done,” she said. “The volunteers are the heart of what’s rebuilding New Orleans.”