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Students Return From Alternative Spring Break With New Perspective

April 5, 2006

Many students came back from spring break well-rested, with golden tans, crazy stories or even job offers. But those who went on Alternative Student Break returned to campus with a new vision of the world.

With the damage of Hurricane Katrina still pervasive across the Gulf Region, ASB sent more than 30 students in three separate groups to New Orleans and Lafayette, La.

Senior Katherine Doehring and junior Mona Yeh led a group working in New Orleans at the Emergency Communities site serving food to local residents and workers. Senior Greg Mortimer led a group gutting houses and clearing debris in the city's lower Ninth Ward.

“It’s not the kind of trip where you can leave and say, 'We helped, and they’ll be OK,’” Yeh said. “You wish you could spend months and months there.”

Doehring and Yeh slept in tents pitched near the Made with Love cafe with hundreds of other volunteers including many students from other schools. In the morning they ate breakfast and started cooking lunch for the community of residents and volunteers. All the food was secured through donations. Because Home Depot was the only store open in the area, there was also a “free” store on site where residents could get diapers, baby food and clothes, while a health station provided vitamins and even massages.

After dinner, local jazz and folk musicians played while residents and volunteers danced. The music was a welcome respite from the destruction all around, Doehring said. It also gave everyone a chance to visit, share their experiences and talk about all that they've been through.

Meanwhile, Mortimer and his team dressed in protective suits and respirators each morning and headed out to clean up damaged houses. They removed refrigerators, wet clothes, drywall and ceilings, leaving behind only the basic house frame. It was long and arduous work, according to Mortimer. But participants bonded by working together long days all week.

The highlight was in seeing the progress from the beginning of the week, when the house looked like a snow globe turned upside down, to the final day when the house was completely empty, Mortimer said. The owners even took the group out to dinner one night to express their gratitude.

“This trip was probably the best way I could have ended four years at Northwestern,” Mortimer said.

All three students agreed that there is still much work to be done in restoring New Orleans. Mortimer took time to attend a racism seminar hosted by the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond.

"It's not just about gutting houses and the physical labor, it’s about understanding that there is a lot of injustice and corruption still going on down there," he said.

Doehring and Yeh also had the chance to travel to the site of one of the broken levies.

"Standing basically at ground zero of the devastation, it looked as if someone had bulldozed 10 square blocks," Doehring said. "The trip really gave me a different perspective and a new way of looking at the world."

Topics: Campus Life