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The group built this room for a new volunteer housing site. Lack of sufficient housing for volunteers is one of the challenges in Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts. From left: Ben McConahey, Meredith Papp, Mark Himmelsbach, Joanna Hamilton, Laura Jensen, David Hegarty, all '07.

Kellogg students spring into action

Passion for community service takes team to Gulf Coast to aid Katrina cleanup; alternate spring break helps fix storm damage

By Adrienne Murrill

4/26/2007 - As she looked around the world for a spring break destination, Laura Jensen ’07 found herself drawn to her hometown.

While visiting her family in Diamondhead, Miss., in December, Jensen was reminded of the devastation that continues to plague the Gulf Coast after being ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Then she figured out a way to do something to help — by getting her Kellogg School peers engaged in a volunteer effort in the affected area.

Doing so meant they would forego a spring break vacation to more exotic climes, but Jensen she said she saw a chance for students to “learn about a major historical event in our country that has had a massive impact on thousands of lives, and to make a meaningful impact by helping in the recovery efforts.” When she pitched the idea to several of her Kellogg friends, they immediately said yes.

“Giving back to the community is an important part of the Kellogg experience, and we realized that this was a unique opportunity to assist others as they attempt to rebuild their lives,” said Ben McConahey ’07, one of the six Kellogg students on the trip. David Hegarty, Joanna Hamilton, Mark Himmelsbach and Meredith Papp, also members of the Class of 2007, volunteered their spring breaks too. What the group came to realize was that while the community has made tremendous progress, the Gulf Coast is far from a full recovery.

For four days the students witnessed and participated in the area’s ongoing efforts. They began by helping to build a new volunteer housing facility in Waveland, Miss. After AmeriCorps volunteers started becoming sick from mold that was growing at their previous site — built from wooden crates and canvas tents — it became necessary to build safer, healthier structures. With the help of another group, the Kellogg students constructed new bunk rooms for the volunteers.

Next, the Kellogg students went to Long Beach, Miss., where they assisted in salvage and reconstruction efforts at an elderly woman’s home. The team installed new insulation and recovered family photographs, diaries, letters and other personal belongings from a pile of rubble in the yard. They spent the final two days back in Waveland rebuilding a home in one of the hardest hit areas along the Gulf Coast.

Jensen said that while the area continues to undergo cleanup and reconstruction, many people are still displaced more than a year and a half after Katrina hit. In Hancock County, Miss., alone, where the students volunteered, Katrina damaged or destroyed 10,000 of 19,000 homes.

The Kellogg team concluded its community efforts by spending two nights in New Orleans, where they visited the Lower Ninth Ward and witnessed the destruction that resulted when the levees broke. They were shocked and saddened by the area’s condition, particularly since so much of it remains untouched even now.

“There was an eerie silence as we visited the Ninth Ward,” McConahey said. “You can show people pictures of houses sitting on top of cars, of debris still on roofs, or of collapsed homes, but you can’t capture the emotion without seeing it with your own eyes.”

The Kellogg students said that their biggest concern is that people may forget that the Gulf Coast still needs help. The challenges of rebuilding lives continue, Jensen said, and many people are still living in FEMA trailers, unable to return to their homes. She added that Hurricane Katrina has had devastating effects on people, both emotionally and physically, and that recovering from the ordeal is taking time.

That is why these students are encouraging others to get involved. Already, Jensen has spoken about the Gulf Coast to those admitted to the Class of 2009 during Day at Kellogg. In addition, a month-long volunteer trip is in the works for this summer. “We’re already passing the idea and spark on to other people. We just don’t want people to forget,” she said.

“Given the incredible strength of the Kellogg community and its network, if we can start something who knows what could happen,” McConahey said. “We simply want to create awareness. The worst thing that could happen would be to sit back and hope that Mississippi and Louisiana simply bounce back on their own.”