LONG BEACH - Even before heading to New Orleans on an "Alternative Spring Break," Cal State Long Beach senior Nadine Henley knew she was heading to a truly devastated area where visitors' emotions can often get the best of them when they see the remaining destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.Still, she wasn't completely prepared for what she saw and experienced on the week-long sojourn. Henley was one of 35 students, faculty and staff from California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) who made the trek to Louisiana. The group members did not use their Spring Break to hit the beach or the slopes, lay in the sun or just relax in preparation for the end-of-the-school-year push. Rather, they used their time off to help others, and they did it laying down a roof, putting up interior walls and working on exterior siding. "Hurricane Katrina hit the area nearly four years ago, but there were still so many abandoned homes and businesses. I thought the situation would be a little better by now," said Henley, a senior sociology major who graduates from CSULB in May. "To me, they (the empty homes and businesses) were a constant reminder to the people of the tragedy that they all went through." But it was the spirit of the people who returned to the devastated area and are working to rebuild their lives there that inspired Henley over the course of the week. "It was amazing to see the people so full of life despite the hardships they are facing, and it was wonderful to hear the thanks and appreciation in person from the survivors of the area," she explained. "Additionally, working alongside a survivor from one of the most hard-hit environments was phenomenal, just experiencing that underlying faith." This is the fourth straight year that CSULB students, faculty and staff have gone to Louisiana, but the first two years were trips to Lake Charles, La., an area in the southwest portion of the state that was devastated by Hurricane Rita. And for the second year in a row, CSULB President F. King Alexander joined the group later in the week for a couple days of "hammer time." The 2009 CSULB Alternative Spring Break team worked with Habitat for Humanity's Collegiate Challenge Program, which provides opportunities for college students to spend a week building a house in partnership with Habitat for Humanity affiliates. Arriving late in the afternoon on Sunday, the students received a tour of the greater New Orleans area on Monday - the good, the bad and the ugly - including the wards most devastated by Hurricane Katrina, the levees that gave way to the rising waters and, of course, the other more "touristy" sites of New Orleans - Bourbon Street, the French Quarter, etc. From Tuesday through Friday, the work day began at 7:30 a.m. and lasted to about 3:30 p.m. as the group worked on four homes in the Musicians' Village area of New Orleans. Members of the group also worked two full days at the Habitat ReStore Store, unloading a dozen trucks of goods and materials and organizing all the merchandise in the store. To take part in the Alternative Spring Break, CSULB students were required to take a class - "Political Science Special Topics 493: Politics, Culture and Disaster." Taught by Liberal Studies Professor Dan O'Connor, the course examines the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina and its impact on the Gulf Coast and the rest of the nation with a particular emphasis on the city of New Orleans. "The most important thing I took home with me from this experience is not to take anything for granted and to be the change I wish to see," Henley said. "I found myself being grateful for our cold showers because, yes, they were ice cold constantly, but those in the storm didn't even get to shower."
********** Published: April 17, 2009 - Volume 7 - Issue 52