UI students help clean, rebuild New Orleans

By Whitney Blair Wyckoff

It was dark when Sara Maletta, freshman in FAA, drove into New Orleans with a van full of other college students. Maletta watched the homes she passed on the way to the converted parochial school where she would be staying for a week. The homes were devastated and rundown. Many looked like they hadn’t been touched since Hurricane Katrina hit in September 2005.

“It was kind of eerie,” Maletta said.

Maletta was one of 12 volunteers from the Service and Justice Outreach group at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center who helped with relief efforts for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Her group spent a week of winter break cleaning and gutting houses. Other University students spent their winter break volunteering with relief efforts in New Orleans, including a group of law students, members of Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity and members of NOLA Relief.

The students from St. John’s worked with local residents to clean out debris the hurricane left behind in two homes.

“A lot of people are still affected by it – even after 18 months,” Maletta said.

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What struck Katie Pieper, a second year law student, about her trip was the remaining racial inequality in New Orleans. She said she toured a hospital catering exclusively to lower income minorities that the hurricane destroyed. The federal government had deemed the hospital beyond repair. Yet the private hospital across the street that treats higher income patients has been completely redone.

“It’s hard not to come up with conspiracy theories,” Pieper said.

Pieper went with students from the University’s Law school. She said they got the idea to plan the trip because a few students went over the summer.

“We just knew there was a continuing need,” Pieper said.

The group of 17 law students volunteered in different capacities. First year law students gutted houses, while those with more legal background worked with the NAACP or local schools, or provided legal advice to low-income victims.

Pieper said that despite the lack of attention that region of the country is getting, it is important that people remember the problems Katrina victims continue to face.

“You can’t forget it. You shouldn’t forget it,” she said. “It’s an old story, but it is still affecting hundreds of thousands of American citizens.”

Christine Knight, freshman in LAS and founder of NOLA Relief, said gutting houses was difficult because the homeowners were “taking you through the process of what was their life.” This was her second time volunteering in New Orleans.

When she returned to Illinois, she said the dichotomy of the two worlds was surreal.

“Coming back where things were functioning – where you can see kids and you can walk to Walgreen’s – was hard for me to understand,” she said. “It was this whole different world.”

Before going on her first trip, “my mentality of New Orleans at that point is that it was fully recovered,” she said. “Media coverage of it had dwindled,” so she didn’t think that the issue was as important any more.

Through NOLA Relief, a group that organizes volunteering trips to New Orleans and works to promote campus awareness, Knight planned a 10-day winter break trip where 26 people worked gutting houses.

Similar to Knight, Nate Kelsey, sophomore in LAS, got the idea to organize a trip after volunteering with Katrina victims in New Orleans during the summer.

Kelsey convinced nine other people in his fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, to go with him on a winter break trip. They raised money during the fall semester and bought train tickets.

The group stayed at Camp Hope, an elementary school serving as makeshift housing for all of the Habitat for Humanity volunteers.

“It was freezing-20 degrees colder than it was outside,” said Kelsey of where they stayed. The room they slept in had only one light and the house didn’t have enough food to accommodate all the volunteers. After two days, they succumbed and relocated to a hotel.

The group installed sheet rock, painted houses, gutted garages and did other chores for New Orleans residents.

“Everything was covered with muck and mold,” said Adam Lopez, sophomore in LAS, about the homes the group cleaned.

Although they said they never felt like they were in danger, they were surprised when they saw members of the National Guard roaming the streets in their Humvees.