March 15, 2006

Students Travel to New Orleans to Volunteer

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Do you have any plans for your spring break? Hundreds of students around the country are giving up their week of rest to help victims of Hurricane Katrina through a volunteer initiative called Katrina on the Ground.

“It’s a national initiative. We’re sending hundreds of students from across the nation … each week in the month of March,” said Justin Davis ’07, president of Black Students United and co-founder and regional director of the Neo Underground Railroad Conductors, an organization with the mission to make America’s youth more politically conscious and socially active. Davis is also a co-founder of KOTG, an initiative completely run by students.

“KOTG is sort of my brainchild,” he said. “It’s time for students to accept the call and help something that’s been neglected for the most part.”

Davis pointed out that although there was a huge effort to provide aid to Katrina victims when the disaster first occurred, aid and awareness have both diminished with time. Six months later, the area is still in devastation.

“There are areas that still haven’t been touched,” Davis said. “It isn’t as wild and crazy as when it first happened, [but] there’s something innately wrong with this.”

About 30 Cornell students are participating in KOTG, and they are all being sent to New Orleans.

“What attracted me was the urgency of the whole thing and my frustration with not knowing what tangible help I could give. … We’ve been forewarned that it’s not going to be a luxurious spring break, but it is [the survivors’] reality,” said Abena A. Sackey ’07, a participant.

“I want this experience to be something students will never forget when they think of Cornell,” Davis said.

In preparation for the trip, students are getting CPR certification and are receiving vaccinations from Gannett to protect themselves against the outbreak of diseases in the area. Once there, students will be working to help as much as possible.

“We’ll be doing everything from cleaning up the rubble to helping at homeless shelters to dealing with [people who need] psychological, physical and emotional help,” said Sackey. “Whatever they need us to do, we’ll do.”

Students will also contribute to developmental work, such as planting trees and flowers. Others will help distribute food and clothing that volunteers are bringing down to the area. Some students will even have the job of walking down the streets with tape recorders, collecting stories and documenting what survivors must deal with every day.

“This is giving of ourselves. Everything we have to give we’ll give,” Davis said. “[It’s important for survivors to] see our faces, see that we’re supporting them and see that we care. These are American citizens that have been affected, and we won’t stand for it any longer.”

“I think it’s a very honorable thing to do, and a lot of people here at Cornell are fortunate to not have financial burdens or catastrophic distress at their homes. Going to a place like New Orleans will expose these students to poverty they may never have experienced before,” said Catherine G. Manix ’08. “I really wish I could go.”

No matter how prepared students are before getting to the area, it will be a shock to see the devastation.

“I expect it to be heartbreaking,” Sackey said. “But at the same time, it will be an empowering project.”

“My parents are [afraid],” she added. “I don’t know what kind of afraid I’ll be. I’m afraid of going down there and just feeling helpless. That’s really scary to me.”

“My biggest concern is the safety of the students. Losing items, items being stolen, people getting lost,” Davis said. “To my knowledge there have been no issues concerning students’ safety yet, but you can never be too sure, especially when you’re going across the country and doing work like this.”

“[I hope to make a] tangible difference … even if it’s just one family,” Sackey said.

Students will spend the first day of their spring break in Selma, Alabama, where they will be trained to ensure that they will be as prepared as possible for the coming week. From there, they will be sent to Mobile, Ala., Biloxi, Miss. or New Orleans, La., where they will spend the rest of their break. While there, students will be living in YMCA centers, churches and the homes of local residents.

“We need to be humbled,” Davis said. “I want students to go down and experience fully what all the survivors have been experiencing. … I want it to be engulfing.”

KOTG is also trying to unify the African-American community and incorporate the civil rights movement into its mission.

“It provided a platform for African Americans, specifically, to overcome adversity using the spirit of America. Our spirits are going to help us carry on and care,” Davis said.

“There are so many [relief organizations], I think it’s necessary to have one that’s geared towards the African-American community. It’s about providing as many venues as possible,” Sackey said.

Many schools across the country have already sent students down to help with the relief effort. North Carolina Agriculture and Technical State University is currently on their spring break and has sent over 200 students to the Gulf Region through KOTG. The students who have already been in the area described the experience as “life-changing.”

“They didn’t want to leave. They got really emotional,” Davis said. “It’s a rough experience to try to swallow, … [but] they’re motivated to do more.”

Archived article by Sara Gorecki
Sun Staff Writer