This past spring break, while some packed the car and headed down to the beach to soak up some rays, students of CSUN’s service learning class choose a different destination’mdash;New Orleans to be exact.
CSUN students armed with nothing but a backpack and a religious studies book, embarked on a trip of a lifetime that some say taught them the true meaning of what it’s like to have nothing.
‘Devastation’ was the only way to describe New Orleans’ lower 9th ward, said CSUN religious studies major Amanda Roth.
‘You can only hear so much on the news of what happened there,’ she said. ‘But to go and see it for yourself, it gives you a better understanding of what actually happened.’
Roth said before reaching the two sites they were to work on for the week, the group passed houses that were marked with an X on them.
The letter was attached with a date, the name of the government agency that came to investigate the damages and the number of bodies found dead in the home or building.
‘One day we passed a duplex that had the number 9 on the door,’ Roth said. ‘It was overwhelming.’
There were about 1800 people who lost their lives in the horrific hurricane in 2005. Causing more than $81 billion in damages, according to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Reports have gone back and forth about the delay of government aid to the city.
The lower 9th ward, where the students worked, is said to be the poorest part of the city and the most damaged, said Rick Talbott, associate professor of the religious studies department.
‘Whole blocks where homes used to be were destroyed,’ he said. ‘It was an eerie thing to see.’
This was Talbott’s second time going on the trip and said he was just overwhelmed by how many students participated this year.
‘It takes an exceptional person to go and give up their spring break to help and put in work for someone else,’ he said. ‘And the people (of New Orleans) openly acknowledged the students and thanked them. It strengthened their spirit.’
Talbott said the effects of the hurricane were not only a natural disaster, but a human disaster as well.
‘The needs were not addressed and secondary the funds given simply have not helped,’ he said.
CSUN student’s involvement began four year ago with club Hillel, the largest Jewish campus organization in the world.
The foundation provides opportunities for Jewish students at more than 500 colleges and universities to explore and celebrate their Jewish identity through its global network of regional centers and school Hillel chapters.
Through Hillel and a course called service learning proposed by Talbott last spring, students aren’t only able to gain experience and knowledge from volunteering in a community, but pick up three units towards their major.
The trip known as the ‘Alternative Spring Break’ cost about $1000 per student for five days. Half of the funds were raised through fundraising and the other half from some of Northridge’s restaurants like TGIF’s.
‘Fridays donated 20 percent of their bill at the end of a night,’ Roth said. ‘And we would pass out flyers asking for donations.’
Students were placed in the city by the national service program known as AmeriCorps, which provided them with the tools needed to refurnish the two homes they were placed at.
After a days work students would go back and reflect on the day by relating the days experience to the course and book, ‘Rebuilding New Orleans’, assigned in class.
What makes this spring break different from the past trips was the opportunity to do a documentary.
Dr. Herman DeBose, the department chair and professor of sociology approached Talbott with the idea of documenting their trip not only to promote it, but to expose the city’s need for more help.
‘I was so excited when I saw what these students were doing that I proposed we document it,’ he said. ‘So I asked the department if we had some funds to do it and it was a go.’
This was DeBose’s first time going on the trip and he said what he couldn’t believe how much this particular part of the city was still in need of so much help.
‘I remember passing a site where there were steps leading to a house that was no longer there,’ he said. ‘It was just devastating.’
DeBose along with Talbott said the most astonishing thing they saw as they drove around the lower 9th ward was a $2 million site being built for the Louisiana Armory.
‘It was amazing to see that the government has the money to build this multi-million dollar armory but no money to help rebuild some these dilapidated homes sitting next to it,’ Talbott said.’
Orlando Avila, 21, a double major in philosophy and religious studies, said it was a great escape to go down to New Orleans as well as an astonishing site to see so many students willing to give up their spring break to help others.
‘To see some 20 something students working and helping to rebuild these homes was something I will take with me forever,’ he said.
If you’d like to get involve or donate money towards the trip contact CSUN’s religious studies department at (818) 677-3591. ‘