BGSU volunteers turn attention to New Orleans

BOWLING GREEN, O.—This holiday season, Bowling Green State University students are doubling their efforts to help Gulf Coast residents still recovering from the 2005 hurricane season.

Following final exams last December, 52 BGSU students boarded a bus for Mobile, Ala., where they worked on homes for nearly a week. This year, 109 students are scheduled to take two buses to New Orleans for a similar trip from Dec. 16-22.

Divided into seven groups, the BGSU volunteers will spend one day in metropolitan St. Bernard Parish, tearing drywall, flooring and ceiling material out of homes still in need of repair more than 15 months after Hurricane Katrina struck the city. For several other days, the students will help build Habitat for Humanity homes elsewhere in New Orleans.

“It's terrifying how much has to be done” in St. Bernard Parish alone, said Clinton Stephens, who was there in early November to plan for the trip. Coordinator of student organization and community service programs in the University's Office of Campus Involvement, Stephens will accompany the students along with Dennis Bubrig, assistant dean of students in campus involvement, and Ana Brown, assistant director of the BGSU President's Leadership Academy.

About one-sixth of St. Bernard Parish's previous residents have returned since the storm, but almost all of them are living in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers in their front yards, Stephens said. “I didn't see one home that was returned to livable condition,” he added, saying the “government infrastructure is still overwhelmed” by the scope of the problem.

After last December's mission to Mobile, another trip to the Gulf Coast was never really in question because “so many students were asking for us to go again,” recalled Stephens. The decision, he said, was made both in response to that interest and to show the students what community involvement entails and how they can be part of it.

He and two students who had gone to Alabama—Brian Dixon of Columbus and Ken Kozlosky of Mentor-on-the-Lake—began planning the trip in September.

“I had never done any kind of trip like that before,” said Kozlosky, a senior communication disorders major, about going to Mobile. “I wanted to make sure there was another trip. It was such a valuable experience.”

The student planners were involved with every major decision, including this year's destination, which they researched. They considered Mobile again, as well as Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle, before settling on New Orleans, “primarily because the need is still there” and because the city now has a well-organized support system in place for incoming volunteers, Stephens explained.

Student signup for the trip began Nov. 13 at the Office of Campus Involvement. All of the roughly 100 seats on the charter buses were filled by noon that day.

The buses will leave campus at 4 a.m. Dec. 16 from parking Lot 7, north of Offenhauer Towers, for the 18-hour ride to New Orleans. They will head back to Bowling Green the evening of Dec. 21, with arrival on campus expected by 3 p.m. the next day.

The students' New Orleans base will be Camp Hope, a Habitat for Humanity volunteer center in St. Bernard Parish. Before Hurricane Katrina, it was an elementary school under construction; afterward, “the school board agreed to allow Habitat for Humanity to use the facility for volunteer quarters,” Stephens said, adding that while the building lacks heating and air conditioning, showers have been installed and occupants sleep on cots in the classrooms.

At a Dec. 3 orientation, students who went to Alabama a year ago told the first-time travelers what to expect in terms of emotional, as well as physical, toll. But respites will be available, too, Stephens noted, in the form of nightly activities that will allow students to experience New Orleans food, music and culture.

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(Posted December 12, 2006)