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Â Nadine Henley Even before heading to New Orleans on an "Alternative Spring Break," Cal State Long Beach senior Nadine Henley knew she was heading to a truly devastated area where visitors' emotions can often get the best of them when they see the remaining destruction left behind by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Still, she wasn't completely prepared for what she saw and experienced on the weeklong sojourn.
Â Henley was one of 35 students, faculty and staff from California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) who made the trek to Louisiana. The group members did not use their Spring Break to hit the beach or the slopes, lay in the sun or just relax in preparation for the end-of-the-school-year push. Rather, they used their time off to help others, and they did it laying down a roof, putting up interior walls and working on exterior siding.
Â "Hurricane Katrina hit the area nearly four years ago, but there were still so many abandoned homes and businesses. I thought the situation would be a little better by now," said Henley, a senior sociology major who graduates from CSULB in May. "To me, they (the empty homes and businesses) were a constant reminder to the people of the tragedy that they all went through."
Â But it was the spirit of the people who returned to the devastated area and are working to rebuild their lives there that inspired Henley over the course of the week.
Â "It was amazing to see the people so full of life despite the hardships they are facing, and it was wonderful to hear the thanks and appreciation in person from the survivors of the area," she explained. "Additionally, working alongside a survivor from one of the most hard-hit environments was phenomenal, just experiencing that underlying faith."
Â This is the fourth straight year that CSULB students, faculty and staff have made the Alternative Spring Break trek to Louisiana. In fact, Henley's older sister, Monique, was a member of the very first CSULB group that went four years ago, which had a role in Nadine's decision to go.
The 2009 CSULB Alternative Spring Break team worked with Habitat for Humanity's Collegiate Challenge Program, which provides opportunities for college students to spend a week building a house in partnership with Habitat for Humanity affiliates.
Arriving late in the afternoon on Sunday, the students received a tour of the greater New Orleans area on Monday - the good, the bad and the ugly -- including the wards most devastated by Hurricane Katrina, the levees that gave way to the rising waters and, of course, the other more "touristy" sites of New Orleans -- Bourbon Street, the French Quarter, etc.
Â From Tuesday through Friday, the work day began at 7:30 a.m. and lasted to about 3:30 p.m. as the group worked on four homes in the Musicians Village area of New Orleans. Members of the group also worked two full days at the Habitat ReStore Store, unloading a dozen trucks of goods and materials and organizing all the merchandise in the store. The ReStores are retail outlets where quality, used and surplus building materials are sold at a fraction of normal prices. Materials sold there are usually donated from building supply stores, contractors, demolition crews or from individuals who wish to show their support for Habitat. Proceeds from ReStores help local affiliates fund the construction of Habitat houses within the community.
Â The CSULB team was housed at Camp Hope in St.Bernard, La., which is about a 30-minute drive from downtown New Orleans. The camp is a converted school used by Habitat for Humanity as basic housing for volunteers. It provides a place to sleep, recreation space and three meals a day, including a bag lunch for each work day. Meals are provided daily by an AmeriCorps team. The rooms are divided by gender and are dormitory style, and each volunteer must bring his/her own bedding, sheets, pillows, blankets and/or sleeping bag.
Â To take part in the Alternative Spring Break, CSULB students were required to take a class - "Political Science Special Topics 493: Politics, Culture and Disaster." Taught by Liberal Studies Professor Dan O'Connor, the course examines the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina and its impact on the Gulf Coast and the rest of the nation with a particular emphasis on the city of New Orleans.
The service-learning course was originally developed by Tim Caron, a CSULB English professor who has made three of the four Alternative Spring Break trips to Louisiana (He missed the trip two years ago because of the birth of his son). Caron had nothing but praise for the students who volunteer their time to make the trip.
"From the beginning, I was completely overwhelmed by our students at Cal State Long Beach. They are whip smart, compassionate, kind, caring, and they are great ambassadors. It's really humbling to spend so much time with them each year and to see how hard-working they are on behalf of others," Caron pointed out. "They are giving up one of a college student's most valuable assets--their Spring Breaks--for the privilege of working for others, taking cold showers, and living in some pretty crowded conditions. I can't really say enough about these young people and the service spirit that they all have in abundance."
Â Henley mentioned the cold showers, too, but in a much different context.
"The most important thing I took home with me from this experience is not to take anything for granted and to be the change I wish to see," she said. "I found myself being grateful for our cold showers because, yes, they were ice cold constantly, but those in the storm didn't even get to shower. And if they did get to bathe, they had the same cold experience I did only with a hose, if they could even find one, according to a man I worked alongside in the Habitat Restore Store.
"I also realized I need to be the change I wish to see because being an example to others shows that your act of kindness can be easily duplicated as long as it comes from the heart," Henley added. "I realized that ordinary people can do extraordinary things like rebuild a home to restore hope in hearts of despair. These lessons will forever resonate with me."
Having returned to Southern California and looking back on the experience, Henley said there were two highlights from the trip in her mind. The first came even before they stepped off the plane as a male flight attendant who had himself been through the storm that devastated the area thanked the student and express his appreciation.
Â "He asked the others in the plane to allow us to get off first the way he normally does if there are service men on board. He stated that we were going to serve this country as (the service men) do, helping people we don't even know while giving the most precious thing -- our time," Henley recalled. "He truly impacted me and made me realize the true essence of what we would be doing.
"Another highlight for me was being at our orientation day on the first day and listening to survivors Chris and Johnny tell their stories," she continued. "Their thoughtful, heartfelt thanks were so sincere. They said that we, the young volunteers, give them hope and are the best therapy they could ever receive."
Â The Alternative Spring Break experience helped solidify one of Henley's future aspirations -- to establish an organization that creates homeless centers for people and helps them restore their lives such as assisting them in finding jobs, providing free counseling services, collecting donations of clothes, including suits from high-end places, to help build confidence in these individuals who are attempting to get back on their feet.
Â For the immediate future, however, Henley wants to do what she can to encourage other students to take part in future Alternative Spring Breaks.
Â "If a fellow student asked me about going on an Alternative Spring Break, I would tell them to just go. You will get back tenfold what you put into it, and the trip makes what you've learned in the classroom much more concrete," she said. "I would tell them that giving up their Spring Break is the least they can do for humanity, and the course and trip will be the most rewarding, life-changing experience of their college career because for me, it definitely was...without a doubt."