After Service, They Bring New Orleans Back Home

For these volunteers, New Orleans is ‘more than a one-week, one-trip service thing’

NEW ORLEANS—At the end of the week, they could say this: they had helped to lay the foundations of five homes here in the Ninth Ward. To the 10 students from Mather who worked during spring break at the construction site, that didn’t seem quite enough.

The homes weren’t yet completed, and all they could see on that final Friday afternoon was flatness.

“I don’t know if it’s particularly us Harvard students,” said Mae C. Bunagan ’06, who led the Mather team. “We were so success-oriented and eager to see stuff get done, and seeing only the foundation done made us think, ‘Did we really do something?’”

Perhaps as a result of this deep-seated ambition and a newfound compassion for New Orleans, students returning from spring break are now turning to other forms of social action.

They said they want to set up photo exhibits, host panels, and even return to the city to intern at service organizations. By the end of the semester, they said, they hope to set up a Katrina-related policy group at the Institute of Politics.

Bunagan’s group has joined participants from five other Phillips Brooks House Association-funded trips on these projects.

These plans may be coping devices, according to Karestan C. Koenen, assistant professor of society, human development, and health at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Though few of the students had any prior connection to New Orleans, the service has become for them a moral obligation, partly because their position at Harvard has granted them opportunities, said Colleston A. Morgan Jr. ’07.

“A lot of us as Harvard students want to address this at a larger level, a national level,” said Morgan, who volunteered at a New Orleans school during intersession and returned to the city to gut homes and film a documentary this spring break. “How do I make it more than a one-week, one-trip service thing?”

Morgan and his peers have taken small steps on the path to their loftier goal: a New Orleans, completely reborn.

A POSSIBLE RECOVERY

Veterans of the spring break trips said their work in New Orleans has inspired them to new relief efforts—and they are not the first Harvard students who have taken up the cause after volunteering in the city.

Over intersession, more than 20 students worked at a charter high school and one of the few remaining public elementary schools in parts of the city affected, though not devastated, by the storm. Gayatri S. Datar ’07 said she was initially hopeful about the city’s possible recovery.

“I was like, ‘This can be redeemed’,” she said she thought at the time. “People can fix this. I can see the progress here.”

On the final Sunday of their trip, they took a tour of the Lower Ninth Ward and parts of the city that had been all but destroyed. Many said the tour overturned their optimism.

Datar said she saw a stuffed Minnie Mouse doll lying alone on a step. On the house had been spray-painted the letters “DOA”: Dead On Arrival.

“It was a doll that I own,” she later said. “I could see that being me almost.”

RECRUITING FOR THE CAUSE

Datar returned to Cambridge with a mission. She had spent one semester last year doing tsunami relief work in India. This time, she said, she hoped other students would join her in New Orleans.

“I don’t think other people gave New Orleans a chance, and I don’t think that’s their fault,” she said.

She and other intersession volunteers have since led the push to raise awareness about Hurricane Katrina on campus, holding a panel through the Institute of Politics in February and hosting a jazz brunch to raise money for New Orleans college students in March.

Datar recruited her fellow intersession volunteers to lead 65 students back to the Gulf this spring break.

‘WHAT THEY COULD BE’

Some volunteers said identification with the black population reportedly hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina has spurred their involvement in relief efforts.

“I think as a black man in America, I sort of understood that,” said Morgan, who is vice president of the Black Men’s Forum.

While volunteering at O. Perry Walker High School over intersession, he said he felt obligated to act as a role model for black youth who lacked them.

“You know what, I listen to the same music they do,” Morgan said. “They looked at me and they saw to a greater degree than what they saw in other people a reflection of themselves and a reflection of what they could be.”

Last Wednesday, Morgan solidified plans to stay in New Orleans this summer. Morgan will likely help to set up a summer camp for minority children.

The first thing he’ll do, he said, is return to the places where he once volunteered: Dillard University, O. Perry Walker High School, and several families’ homes. He wants to see how far they’ve come.

—Staff writer April H.N. Yee can be reached at aprilyee@fas.harvard.edu.