The week before Mardi Gras, a dozen student activists gather in a softly lighted dormitory room at Tulane University. They have come not to party but to plan. Thousands of students on college campuses around the country have signed up to spend their weeklong spring break on volunteer projects in New Orleans, America's most damaged city, and local university students and administrators are matching the volunteers with local projects.
The timing of spring break varies from campus to campus. This year, a student's holiday may fall anywhere during a six-week period from Feb. 25 to April 9. That gives local organizers the chance -- and the challenge -- to plan projects from the weekend before Mardi Gras through the first week of April. To make maximum use of the volunteer help, they have lined up transportation, housing and work assignments in several flood-ravaged neighborhoods.
Unlike government meetings on the city's recovery, student reports of progress are greeted by their peers with encouraging words like "cool!" or "sweet!"
The students are focused and well-organized. Their meeting moves quickly.
Trisha Schimek, a Tulane coed, sits on the floor with a laptop. She points to each student in the room with a smile and a cue.
One by one, the students rattle off reports on plans to paint public schools, tutor young children or gut houses in storm-ravaged neighborhoods like Holy Cross, Pontilly, Central City and Gert Town.
Annie Crozier's hand shoots up. "Can I update you real fast and go take a test?," the coed asks. Schimek nods.
"Camp Algiers is up in the air at the moment," Crozier says of a request to house volunteers at the FEMA base camp on the West Bank. However, temporary housing has been found for three nights Uptown. She then darts out of the room.
Charles Kienzle, a student from Dallas, sits cross-legged on a table as he reports on joint projects in Gert Town between Tulane, the activist group Common Ground, and a visiting professor. Kienzle sees an environmental resource center in Gert Town's future. "It's going to be the green capital of the world," he says, smiling.
Two coeds listen and sigh.
"I love you, Charles," one of the women says.
If he hears her, he does not respond, but he doesn't stop smiling either.
"Update!" Schimek says, pointing to another student.
KATRINA MAY BE CHANGING NEW ORLEANS' REPUTATION among American college students -- at least for spring break. Tulane University will host 500 student volunteers from more than 30 universities, including Colgate, Wake Forest, Northwestern and Michigan State. Hundreds more will come via Dillard, Xavier and a variety of religious and secular institutions.
"Normally, students arrive for Mardi Gras or for spring break or for what most people come to New Orleans for, such as the French Quarter," says Cynthia Cherrey, vice president for student affairs at Tulane. "This is unique and different."
Offers of student help are pouring into the Tulane Office of Community Service from around the country. "We haven't invited anybody and we've got 500 to 600 students coming," says Hamilton Simons-Jones, who founded the office in 2001 as an undergraduate student and who now is its director.
Katrina relief work in New Orleans has become a popular cause. For religious students nationwide, rebuilding New Orleans is like a crusade. Black students in the North are comparing "spring break" in New Orleans to the activism of the Civil Rights Movement.
"They are calling like crazy wanting to come down and help," says Dewain Lee, associate dean for career services at the historically black Dillard University. Dillard sustained extensive damage from flooding and dormitory fires after Katrina. Most of the university's 1,187 students are temporarily housed at the Hilton Riverside Hotel.
From March 20 to April 1, the small liberal arts school will help host 250 spring breakers from Brown, Harvard, Princeton and the University of Illinois at Chicago. The student volunteers will be directed to the odious chore of gutting flood-damaged houses under the supervision of community service groups such as Habitat for Humanity. "Our spring breakers are going to get down and dirty," Lee says.
Meanwhile, Christian students from across America were in town last week for a New Orleans crusade. Even before the first wave arrived in late February, Pete Kelly, regional director for the Campus Crusade for Christ ministry in Austin, Texas, happily reported that response from students was "out of control."
"We signed up 4,000 students from 130 campuses nationwide to help clean out churches in New Orleans," Kelly said.
Last week, Kelly told Gambit Weekly that a total of 8,400 Christian college students will have worked at least one week in New Orleans by the time his organization ends its six-week crusade here on April 7. "That is a lot of man-hours," Kelly says. "I know they gave at least 40 hours each. These kids work hard."
Kelly says the group is working with the city to coordinate the restoration of neighborhood churches. In addition, he says, his group joined local churches and Tulane's Office of Community Services to target hundreds of flood-ruined homes for rehabilitation. "Our goal is to restore 20 churches and to help gut or clean out 3,000 homes," Kelly says.
The crusade's effort peaked in mid-March, with 4,500 working students. That figure dropped to 1,500 last week. A thousand students are scheduled to work during the last week of March, and 100 will be left to work for the first week of April, Kelly says.
Kimberly Reese, assistant dean of students at Xavier University, says the 3,100-student Catholic university will be working to help match community projects with visiting students from other historically black colleges and universities. Xavier also plans to host 130 students from Georgia State University. Xavier will open the House of Studies residence hall to visiting spring breakers on a first-come, first-served basis, Reese adds.
The nation's premier black Catholic university was damaged by 6-to-10 feet of floodwater from Katrina. Like the city's seven other colleges and universities, Xavier was closed for the fall 2005 semester, its students scattered at universities around the country.
Now, Xavier is operating on a shortened schedule -- and without a spring break. Yet, Xavier worked with visiting students on a community project last week, starting with an orientation for spring breakers last Tuesday (March 20) -- the first day of spring.
"They will be cleaning and gutting by day," Reese said before the students' arrival. "At night, they will be learning about the city's culture, getting good food to eat and listening to our music."
"Even though I'm not from here, I still consider this my city," says Xavier junior Denishia McIntosh, 21, a native of Carrollton, Texas. "I've lived here for three years. We have to live in this environment, and we care about this environment."
Like students at Tulane, McIntosh is optimistic about the city's recovery. "Every day something else is working. You really appreciate it when another traffic light comes on along Carrollton Avenue."
JUDITH WATTS COULDN'T WAIT FOR the spring breakers to arrive.
"We are trying to find child-care centers and family homes that can use these wonderful students," says Watts, director of Agenda for Children, a nonprofit child advocacy group. "Right now, we have 41 licensed child-care centers operating post-Katrina. And they are all almost filled to capacity." Student volunteers will be assigned such tasks as painting, cleaning yards and mending fences in order to reopen the closed child-care centers -- a key to repopulating the city.
Student volunteers admit that civic endeavors may not replace alcohol-fueled parties as the primary source of spring break fun, but they enjoy the challenge posed by their New Orleans experience.
"New Orleans is a very, very fun city," says McIntosh of Xavier. "But when it comes down to it, this is the worst natural disaster in U.S. history and people want to help."
Felix Wai, a graduate student at Tulane and organizer of the Mardi Gras Service Corps, a student community group, agrees. "The atmosphere in post-Katrina New Orleans is definitely service-oriented," Wai says. "Katrina was like the huge slap in the face you can't avoid. There's a huge intent and a huge need. Our job is to make that connection."
Dillard's Lee says university officials braced themselves when a majority of their students moved into the downtown Hilton. "We had a few concerns being just steps away from the French Quarter, initially," Lee says. "But we have found when the students are not here in classes they are out engaging in some civic activity."
Tulane officials cracked down on booze after 11 students were hospitalized for alcohol-related incidents during a two-week period earlier in the semester.
Drunken students typically give New Orleans a hangover all their own, but New Orleans police -- most of whom lost their homes during Katrina -- and tourism leaders welcomed news that thousands of spring breakers were mobilizing to help rebuild the city.
"New Orleans has always attracted young people," says Sandra Shilstone, president and CEO of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. "Now, they are going to be part of history in the making."
If they can find a place to stay.
For example, Kelly of Campus Crusade for Christ was hoping his army of 8,000-plus volunteers could sleep under the large tents at Camp Premiere and Camp Algiers, two FEMA base camps on the West Bank. "We're like the Israelites, looking for a place to land," Kelly says.
For a brief while, it appeared FEMA might answer his prayers.
The much-maligned federal agency recently announced that -- for the first time in its history -- free housing would be provided to volunteer groups working on the recovery, including spring breakers.
"We are in new territory but it is something we recognize we needed to do," said Justin DeMello, a new deputy coordinating officer for FEMA in the metro area. DeMello says the feds were nearly doubling their total beds to 4,000 at Camp Algiers and 3,000 at Camp Premiere. Housing will be arranged through local agencies, he said.
However, representatives of Campus Crusade for Christ and the Mardi Gras Service Corps says their groups were unable to take full advantage of FEMA's new housing initiative.
Wai of Mardi Gras Service Corps says his bid for FEMA housing fell through prior to the agency's announcement. "I had to find 300 sleeping places for people at churches and community centers," he says, wearily.
Kelly says his group of Christian students was just too big. They found more spacious accommodations with the help of one of the Lower Ninth Ward's better known politicians -- Rev. Leonard Lucas, a former state representative.
Lucas, pastor of Light City Church and a candidate for Clerk of Criminal Court in the upcoming elections, arranged for 2,000 of the visiting Christians to stay at a warehouse that his church owns in the heart of the flood-wrecked Lower Nine. The students went to work immediately, Kelly says. Within five days, the warehouse had electricity, plumbing, showers and a fresh coat of interior paint.
But after a day of gutting houses, the students' demand for showers often exceeded the facilities at the warehouse. "At one point, there was a two-hour wait for showers, so some of the students went to a car wash and hosed themselves off," Kelly says, chuckling.
IN THE TULANE DORM ROOM, marketing student Kira Hendrickson sketches a design for a T-shirt that will be distributed to spring break workers.
One sketch features smiling crawfish.
The student activists pass the draft around the room as they discuss a long-term vision for New Orleans -- beyond Katrina's spring break.
"They may only be here for a week, but we want New Orleans to be with them for the next five years," Simons-Jones says of the visiting students.
Wai agrees: "If we get them planted and passionate about what's going on here, they'll take it home."
Many spring breakers will be returning to cities with large populations of displaced New Orleans families, he adds.
Returning students could organize efforts to help displaced citizens in their own communities -- helping them overcome problems with housing, jobs and adapting to other schools, Simons-Jones says, as if completing Wai's thought.
As their meeting ends, the Tulane activists talks enthusiastically about the possibility of making New Orleans a summer destination for student volunteers.
Meanwhile, Kelly says Campus Crusade for Christ plans to launch a summer relief trip, but on a "smaller scale" than its spring break effort. "We feel great about what we have accomplished, but I think the rebuilding of New Orleans is going to take eight to 10 years," he says, adding, "It took Nehemiah 52 days to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem; it's going to take a lot longer to rebuild New Orleans."
In our timeline in last week's issue ("25 Years: 1981-2006"), we incorrectly reported that New Orleans hosted the NCAA men's Final Four basketball showdown for the first time in 1987. New Orleans hosted the Final Four for the first time in 1982, featuring Michael Jordan's game-winning shot as North Carolina defeated Georgetown 63-62 -- before 61,612 people at the Louisiana Superdome. Gambit Weekly regrets the error.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Peter Kelly of the Campus Crusade for Christ addresses some of the more than 8,000 college students who have come to New Orleans since Mardi Gras to spend their spring break working to help poor neighborhoods recover from Hurricane Katrina.