Helping rebuild the Gulf Coast

BY JILL KASSANDER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

The 13 students from Washington University were shocked by the amount of devastation still evident from the effects of Hurricane Katrina which hit the Gulf Coast nearly three years ago.

“I didn’t expect things to still look so bad,” senior Larissa Marco said. “I feel like everyone saw it on the news, and then when it wasn’t on the news it was kind of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and nobody is thinking about it anymore. But we need to do something.”

This is the third year the university participated in the efforts to help rebuild the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina. “Hillel Builds the Gulf 2008” was the planned alternative spring break coordinated through the Weinberg Tzedek Department of International Hillel in Washington, D.C. St. Louis Hillel Jewish Campus Life Coordinator Jessica Manela Litwack accompanied the students: Josh Bobrow, Sarah Brehm, Dan Feng, David Fox, Rebecca Leffell, Marco, Orli Pinsberg, Nadav Rindler, Eve Samborn, Martin Schaefer, Asher Schlusselberg, David Schwartz and Daniel Weiss.

There were 170 people assisting during the week the students participated. They stayed in a camp built for volunteers in Kiln, Miss. The students worked on one five bedroom house for the entire week in one of the hardest hit neighborhoods following Hurricane Katrina.

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“The house had already been gutted, so the students got to put in insulation and start to do the drywalling,” Litwack said. “We were lucky we got to do so much physical work. The kids really enjoyed it.”

The homeowners, Lynette and Al, were at the site every day to work, brings snacks to the students and talk with them.

“They shared their story with us,” Litwack said. “They were very warm and appreciative and incredibly welcoming — as was everyone in the community. They thanked us for being there.”

Fox, a freshman from Maryland, said those interactions with the homeowners really made the project personal. He had decided to go on the trip after hearing from past participants about what an amazing experience it was for them. He was shocked to see the Gulf Coast looking the “same since the flood when hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of miles were all under ten feet of water.”

“It is like the Lost World down there,” Fox said. “The government is not providing enough support, money and resources for the homeless. The French Quarter is like a Band Aid covering a huge wound on the Gulf Coast which is still so devastated.”

The students worked full days and did learning every day with the students from the different campuses. The professional leaders helped them to reflect on their experience with Jewish text and values, said Litwack. There were additional activities including a bus tour of other devastated areas as well as a fun evening in New Orleans.

“One day we went to see Beth Israel Synagogue, which had been under ten feet of water,” Litwack said. “The large middle bimah in the men’s section had ended up in women’s section on the second floor. The Torahs had to be buried.”

A longtime member of the congregation shared her loss with the students, discussing all of the family events which had taken place at the congregation.

Samborn enjoys doing community work and helping people. The freshman from Illinois also thought it thought it would be fun to do construction as well as have the opportunity to travel and see New Orleans. She was appalled at the amount of damage.

“Not one street was completely repaired,” Samborn said. “The houses were in various states of reconstruction or totally abandoned. There’s a lot of work left to be done.”

Marco, a senior from New York, decided to go on the trip to take advantage of this last opportunity to have the time to give back to the community in a way she doesn’t expect to have after graduation and settling down with a full time job. She found the experience very humbling and very rewarding.

“The family we worked with has spent the past two and half years on their own, going to Home Depot every paycheck to buy supplies to fix their home and books to teach them how to do it,” Marco said. “It was amazing and simultaneously sad.”

Schlusselberg, a senior from Texas, had no idea what to expect on the trip but “figured there wouldn’t be much work left to do since it has been two years since the flooding.” He was shocked by what he saw.

“I didn’t expect to see police officers without homes,” Schlusselberg said. “I expected the government would have provided more help for their civil servants.”

All the students were very glad they went on the trip. Fox is pledging a fraternity and planning to organize them for a trip back to the Gulf Coast to help over the summer. The experience also had a local impact as well.

“These sorts of things happen in a lot of places and we need to be more aware,” Schusselberg said. “I am going to help the people in St. Louis dealing with the floods here with sandbagging or whatever they need. I don’t think I would have done it if I hadn’t gone on this trip.”

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