Helping the People of New Orleans

Nine OWU students spring into action during spring break
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OWU’s New Orleans mission team crew takes time for a group photo at their work site. (Photo courtesy of Julie Blaszak)

The first season of HBO’s hit series “Treme” portrayed life in New Orleans just three months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005. Viewers continue to be drawn into the lives of the people of Treme, one of the oldest neighborhoods in New Orleans, as they struggle to rebuild and reclaim their lives, livelihood, homes, and culture—a struggle that members of the Ohio Wesleyan community have recognized and tried to help out with during the past five years.

Six years after Katrina, a group of nine Ohio Wesleyan students and two advisors traveled as a mission team to New Orleans during OWU’s recent spring break, to continue the laborious work of several OWU teams before them—each group building on past improvements made by other volunteers. The team was part of OWU’s Spring Break Mission Week program, sponsored by the Chaplain’s Office.

Team advisor Julie Blaszak, assistant director of residential life (her co-advisor was Robert Louis Charles ’08) and team leaders Cali Cornacchia ’12 and Maren Oehl ’12 worked closely together, months before their trip. It was Cornacchia’s second team trip to New Orleans, this time in a leadership role.

“Before our trip, several of us participated in leadership development training,” says Cornacchia, mentioning her added planning responsibilities involving after-work opportunities for the group and team building activities. The OWU team, partnering with the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, began their week by volunteering for a church in Kettering, Louisiana, doing landscaping and yard work. With the start of the annual Mardi Gras festivities, the team’s strong work ethic prevailed, as students stayed focused on their clean-up duties until the end of the day. They did, however, have the chance to enjoy the music, brightly-colored beads, and jubilant Mardi Gras crowds.

Beads and more beads! OWU students took some time to experience Mardi Gras festivities. (Photo courtesy of Julie Blaszak)

“This was truly an amazing cultural experience for us, adding to our knowledge of New Orleans,” says Blaszak. The festivities also were strong contrasts to that which team members were about to experience during the following days as they began working with the St. Bernard  Project and its founder, Zack Rosenburg ’95. He and his co-founder Liz McCartney had volunteered to help after the hurricane hit, and soon after organized a large group to build new homes for people who had lost everything. Their organization—the St. Bernard Project—has received numerous awards and recently was recognized nationally as one of 10 top service groups.

“We had the opportunity to meet Zack Rosenburg and hear about how he formed that organization,”says Blaszak. “And then we were matched with a house that had been damaged by looting.” During the next few days, the OWU team did mudding, sanding, dry-walling, painting, and priming. Occasionally at their sides were experienced AmeriCorps volunteers who offered helpful and welcome advice. Students also observed their surroundings as they drove through neighborhoods and saw homes with caved-in walls and still prevalent waterlines from the flooding. For first-time traveler Maryam Shitu ’13, it was a depressing site.

Putting the finishing touches on their assigned house, team members stayed focused on their work. (Photo courtesy of Julie Blaszak)

“I wondered if we could really make a difference, but then I realized that another group of volunteers would come and build on our work, and then another group after that one, and we could all make a difference,” she concludes. As a high school student when Hurricane Katrina hit, Shitu decided that she would help the people of New Orleans, if given the chance.

“As an advisor, I was amazed to see where our students started before our trip and where they ended up,” says Blaszak. I really got to know each person and saw these students come together as a team.”

Anyone interested in being part of a team or learning more about OWU’s Mission Team program can contact Chad Johns.

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