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Skidmore students in service to the Gulf Coast community

Posted: 03/19/2009

For 23 Skidmore students, Spring Break 2009 provided a service-learning opportunity in Waveland, Miss., an area hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. The group included seven seniors and a contingent of first-year students and peer advisors hoping to take their FYE classroom experience into the real world. Peer advisors raised funds to help underwrite the cost of the trip.

For its pre-Skidmore summer reading assignment, the Class of 2012 was assigned Terence Blanchard's CD A Tale of God's Will: A Requiem for Katrina. The recording is a haunting and impassioned song-cycle about the physical and emotional damage to the city of New Orleans wreaked by Katrina in 2005.

“The trip was amazing and shocking at the same time,” said FYE peer mentor Claire Superak. “The juxtaposition of the stunning city of New Orleans with the devastation of Waveland and the surrounding communities stood out to me because the culture of the downtown New Orleans tourists, residents, and vendors was so different from the lifestyles of the people in the surrounding areas.”

The students traveled under the auspices of the Giving Circle of Saratoga Springs, which has a sister-city relationship with Waveland and has organized a number of hurricane relief efforts in that area. The Skidmore group stayed at the Katrina Relief Camp in Waveland. They helped rebuild a house in Bay St. Louis that was flooded during Katrina. They also cleaned up a neglected park in nearby Middletown, Miss.

“Going to Middletown, a predominantly black community, was amazing,” said Natalie Alvarez, an FYE peer mentor and one of the trip’s primary fundraisers. “We cleaned up, re-landscaped, and repainted Martin Luther King Jr. Park. The kids would come home after school and play with us in the park while we were working. The fact that these kids would probably never have run into a group of almost all-white people helping to fix their park, and that we actually played with them, was a mind-blowing concept for me.”

Natalie’s experience was also eye opening. She said that the federal government is pulling out FEMA trailers at the end of this month, and she can’t understand it because many people will have absolutely nowhere to go. She added that the corruption in the Gulf Coast area in terms of contractors and volunteer agencies is “unfathomable,” according to the stories she heard.

Natalie is already setting her sights on the future: “I hope that next year (I'm a peer mentor again), we can connect our fundraising efforts with FYE C.A.R.E.s (our peer mentor-run volunteer group) and run a similar trip.”

Certainly there is much more to do. Says Claire, “While I am happy that I could help with the relief efforts, the little that I did in my week in Mississippi is minute compared to the amount of work that still needs to be done. Even beyond restoring buildings that were destroyed, so much more can be done for the community. The families and community members seemed so hopeful and appreciative of our help that I hope I have the chance to return in the future.”