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Free to focus FYE gets freshmen zeroed in early
Lasting impact When Katrina crashed, students rolled into action
Dining out by dining in Personalized options to bring everyone to the table
A day in the life What do students do all day? See for yourself.

 

Lasting impact

When everything went wrong in New Orleans, Skidmore students went south to help make it right
By Maryann Teale Snell

As Hurricane Katrina, and the flooding and political undertow that followed, topped news headlines last fall, Skidmore joined the relief efforts—raising funds for victim assistance, welcoming a handful of displaced students and professors from Louisiana, and starting a campuswide conversation about how else the college might help. And when an anonymous parent donated $25,000 specifically toward organizing community service work, several dozen students headed to New Orleans to lend a hand—and heart. Over winter break they worked with the Common Ground Collective, a grassroots community organization, and Disciples Home Missions, a social service agency. What they saw, and what they came away with, will likely never leave them.

The sustained media coverage made it virtually impossible to be unmoved by the knowledge that the city’s social, economic, and environmental failures had taken a turn for the worse. Still, Jarek Bell ’06 was “curious to see how the situation differed from the media’s portrayal,” which tends to be overly dramatic, he believes. Amelia Rubenstein ’07 felt “totally helpless” watching news of the Gulf Coast. She gave a “tragically inadequate” twenty-five dollars to the Red Cross, but says making the trip to Louisiana was “a chance to give what’s really needed: physical labor and support.”

Olivia Owen ’08, noting that Skidmore students are “very privileged,” wanted hands-on experience. Along with privilege comes a responsibility, she says, to “take action against inequalities and discrimination. I saw no better way to learn about the complex web of race, class, and gender issues in our country’s poor communities.” And Kibuchi Banfield ’08 knew that “being in New Orleans would teach me much more than television could about the devastation, the needs, the hope, and the spirit of residents and volunteers. I wanted to help,” he says.

Images of the devastation were abundantly graphic, and the students heading south—some of whom had prior involvement with Habitat for Humanity or other construction work—had no false expectations about the physical work they were volunteering for. But could they ready themselves emotionally? Going in with an open mind was important, says Doug Herbst ’06. “I had to be open to seeing sights I’d never seen before, meeting people in a state I could not imagine, and doing things I have never done.”

“We had a couple of meetings where we discussed travel logistics, safety precautions, what to pack,” says Rubenstein. “I talked a lot with my friends and parents about what I thought I might see down there.” As the travel date approached, Banfield felt excited—“not sad, not nervous.” He’d spent a summer in New Orleans but knew the buildings and streets would not look much like the city he remembered. “I tried to imagine how bad it could be,” he says.

Howie Austin ’06 steeled himself for the labor that lay ahead. “I told myself I was going there to work. I didn’t want to get bogged down with the politics of the area or the heavy sadness of families left with nothing. I went there to work, and that’s what I did.”

Austin was on a work team that camped out in a church forty minutes from New Orleans. They slept on cots and ate their meals mess-hall style. They worked in a part of the city called Lakeview, gutting houses and cleaning them with bleach. “We tore out carpet and hardwood floors, cabinets, sinks, and all the drywall,” says Bell. “When we were finished, all that was left was a wooden frame and a roof, plus the outside structure.” Because the houses were brick and stone on the exterior, they didn’t look too bad to people driving by. But inside was a different story, Bell says. “Have you ever seen a scary movie where people go into a ghost house and it looks like it hasn’t been touched for hundreds of years? That’s the only way I can describe it. Everything was so weathered from the water, and it was really dark.”

Bell also worked in the Lower Ninth Ward, where structures were made of wood and damage was readily visible from the outside. He saw “houses in the middle of the street, houses on cars, houses completely flattened.”

Better shelters


One weekend last fall, junior Jessica Neilson and seniors Doug Herbst, Jarek Bell, and Howie Austin, along with local contractor Dan Sansone, went to New Orleans to repair a couple of women’s shelters damaged in Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding. “Between the five of us, we put in over a hundred hours in two and a half days,” Neilson says. “Dale Standifer [executive director of the Metropolitan Battered Women’s Shelter, who’d been to Skidmore in November to share her experiences] told us we saved them about three months of work—that’s how tough it is to get help down there.” In one building they put up drywall and prepped the surfaces to be painted. At another they put a fence back up so the children could play outside again.

On their last day in New Orleans the crew drove through Lakeview, near a levee that broke. “I couldn’t leave New Orleans without seeing the worst of the worst, and this was it,” says Neilson. “There was nothing left but shells of houses. I felt bad taking pictures. Dale told me the residents were pretty annoyed at first, with people coming through to stare, but after a while they came to grips with the fact that people need to see this.” —MTS

The first house Elizabeth Edwards ’08 worked on was “in really bad shape,” she says. “There was a large tree on it, and we had to chainsaw our way to the front door. Inside, the water had risen almost to the ceiling, so there was mold everywhere. When we were taking down shelves in a closet we found two undamaged photo albums—of wedding pictures taken inside the house, before the hurricane. It made me wonder what I’d do if my house was completely destroyed. I don’t know if I’d be able to come back and see it full of mud.” Meeting the elderly owners of one of the houses she worked on was gratifying, Edwards says. “Seeing how grateful they were for our help made me feel our work was worthwhile.”

Gutting houses with a sledgehammer for two days straight was “intense,” says Rubenstein. “It was hot, and annoying to wear all the safety gear—goggles, respirator, Tyvek suit—but the work itself was really invigorating.” One day she and Denise Geffke ’07 babysat a toddler while the parents looked for new jobs. Another day they were invited to attend Sunday services at a Baptist church, where Rubenstein says “seeing so many different people from all over the country, gathered to do something so purely unselfish, was unlike anything” she’s ever experienced. “I remembered what it meant to feel good about people,” she says.

After nine days on the Gulf Coast, Howie Austin came back to Skidmore “physically and mentally spent,” he says. “The more I heard about the politics in the area, the more depressed I became. I was proud of the work we’d done, but I hoped it was actually going to do some good.”

Kibuchi Banfield left New Orleans with a renewed sense of responsibility. “Help is more than just sending money to a big-name organization,” he says. “It’s about reaching out to communities that need it the most. Maybe people can’t go to New Orleans, or even send money. But they can get involved by speaking out, by staying up to date on what’s happening.”

Olivia Owen—who joined others in marching from the Lower Ninth Ward to the center of downtown “in protest of the bulldozing proposals, and of the US military budget in a time when we need to use our resources to help people build their homes again”—is now more aware than ever of “how much we have compared to the rest of the world.” Owen says she saw, “in the lack of light in people’s eyes, what it’s like to suffer.”

While she was “really disheartened by the physical devastation” on the Gulf Coast, Rubenstein too was even more struck by “the prevalent racism and social inequality that has a grip on so much of our country, especially the South. I went in not knowing what to expect, and left feeling lucky, sad, inspired, downtrodden, angry, and amazed.”

“The one image I kept thinking of in New Orleans,” says Austin, “was the ending of all those apocalypse/end-of-the-world kinds of movies: Mankind survives and starts to rebuild. Everything looks happy on the surface, but the movies never really show what strife the people have to go through to rebuild. New Orleans is becoming a Hollywood movie with a happy ending on the surface. Hopefully, the whole thing really will have a happy ending.”

Most of the Skidmore students who spent their winter break helping out on the Gulf Coast say they’d like to go back—when and if they can. And they encourage others to go. “Don’t be afraid of what might be there,” urges Banfield. “Just go and learn. See for yourself.” And “there’s a lot more to doing volunteer work than just helping someone out,” adds Doug Herbst. “There’s a genuine sense of community when so many people are interested in making the world a better place.”