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Alternative Break Club leaves New Orleans with memories and a message

EWING, NJ … Though she volunteered there just last year, Katie Gallagher was surprised by some of the conditions she saw in New Orleans, half a decade after Hurricane Katrina.

TCNJ’s Alternative Break began its fourth home-building trip to the city on Jan. 10.  Gallagher, a junior and president of ABC, was stunned by the state of the city’s schools.

Amid the damaged neighborhoods, she said, were abandoned elementary and high schools, and even a college, with shattered windows and walls marked with spray paint.  The college’s name was missing so many letters that it was unreadable.  An elementary school hadn’t enrolled students since 2005.

“That was very chilling … to see that nothing has been done to that school in five years,” she said.

Yet the week ahead held promise for ABC’s 52 student travelers, who went to work on building and repairing homes for those who had been displaced by the storm.  From Monday through Friday, they stayed at Olive Tree Village, a volunteer camp run by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, an international disaster recovery organization, and a New Orleans-based rebuilding effort, Project Homecoming.

Through five days of insulation work, dry walling and painting on seven different home-building projects, the volunteers gained experience and words of wisdom that they would carry home to New Jersey and their peers.

Each night saw group reflections, during which the volunteers opened up about their daily work and impressions.  On Homeowner Night, the students met several of the grateful people whose homes they were working on.  On another occasion, they all gathered into a man’s just-finished home for a dedication ceremony.

The resident spoke to the group about the importance of relationships — such as those he had formed with volunteers — versus more-transient material things.

“The advice that he gave us and the words that he spoke to us kept coming up in our conversation throughout the week,” Gallagher said.

ABC, a student-run volunteer organization that allows students to spend break time on volunteer trips, has been traveling to New Orleans over spring and winter breaks since spring 2009.

The gulf region will likely require assistance for years to come, she said.  In the spring, ABC plans to volunteer elsewhere in the region, as the volunteer week coincides with New Orleans’ historically energetic Mardis Gras celebration.

Yet the student volunteers will return, as motivated as ever by the inspirations of this winter’s journey.

“I met so many people who are so enthusiastic about this cause … the other volunteers that we met during the week were just absolutely amazing,” Gallagher said.  One organizer at the Olive Tree Village, she said, was just 24 years old.

“That, to me, was very encouraging, that young people can make a difference.”