Perseverance & Hope in New Orleans
Alumni and students join forces in groundbreaking service trip
by MaryAlice Bitts
June 16, 2010
Dickinson volunteers pose during a service trip to New Orleans. The trip was the first Dickinson student trip to pair student and alumni volunteers.
Hours after graduating from Dickinson, Amanda Crabbe ’10 trekked across campus, luggage in tow, and boarded a van to New Orleans. And one two-day journey later, while most of the nation’s new graduates still basked in the excitement of their passage into the professional realm, Crabbe was hard at work installing baseboards in a home in the city’s hurricane-ravaged Seventh Ward.
It wasn’t her first volunteer experience, but it was symbolically significant. Five years after Hurricane Katrina swept the Gulf Coast, Dickinson’s ninth service trip to the Crescent City was also the first to pair students with alumni volunteers. And as Crabbe, the youngest of 15 such alumni, can attest, the spirit of service fostered at Dickinson continues after graduates venture outside the college’s limestone walls.
An astounding response
Service-trip veteran Mira Hewlett, interim director of religious life and community service, partnered with Office of Alumni and Parent Relations Director Rick Delgiorno to make the opportunity available to alumni.
“The response was astounding,” said Delgiorno, one of four Dickinson administrators who took part in the trip. He noted that all 15 alumni spots were filled within an hour of posting information about the volunteer opportunity; a 30-member wait-list was soon created. “Giving back is woven in to the fabric that makes up the Dickinson community,” Delgiorno explained.
Organizers divided the 34-member group into three teams. Led by Bonner Leaders Mike Blair ’12, Cate David ’11 and Josh Handelsman ’12, the teams would work on three houses in New Orleans, including a structure that had been drywalled a few months earlier by Dickinson students on a spring-break trip.
And, after about a year of planning, a new alumni-student venture had begun.
A diamond in the rubble
By night, the volunteers slept in bunk beds in a water-damaged church that had been converted into a makeshift recovery station. By day, as temperatures peaked at a humid 95 degrees, they attached baseboards, installed drywall, painted, affixed molding and cleaned remaining hurricane-strewn dirt and debris.
There were poignant moments: The day Matthew Manarski ’13 unearthed a diamond ring amid the rubble and returned it to its elated owner. The afternoon a woman, who had been living in a FEMA trailer behind her home for five years, hugged the members of Handelsman's team, Team Josh, to thank them for their good work. The story-telling game that other volunteers played with a young boy, who, charmed by the attention, stayed to help them paint. The visits with neighbors who offered drinks and icy treats to stave off the Louisiana heat.
Those visits were particularly moving, said Michael Pappas ’83. “What kept us grounded and on track was interaction with the homeowners and neighbors,” Pappas explained. “Their remarkable stories of perseverance … recalled us to our mission.”
By week's end, the volunteers had improved the condition of three houses, bringing three residents steps closer to moving back home. It was a satisfying accomplishment, said Kelle Basta ’04.
“We all put so much heart, love and care into [the job],” noted Basta. “It’s an amazing feeling to be able to spread so much hope after so much devastation.”
The volunteers also visited other areas of the city, gaining an appreciation for the manifold culture that drives recovery efforts five years after Katrina. They took in New Orleans' skyline at night, toured the French Quarter and trolled through the Garden District. And they viewed the new levees and toured a school in the city's hardest-hit Lower Ninth Ward.
Throughout the week, the volunteers traveled, worked and enjoyed down time together; cooked for each other; and slept and ate meals in close, humble quarters. As with service trips past, new friendships blossomed. But according to Hewlett, who marked her 10th New Orleans service trip this spring, the multigenerational mix of Dickinsonians from across the country created a particularly special—and beneficial—dynamic this year.
“Seeing the alumni interact and tell stories with the current students was inspiring,” she noted. “It is wonderful to be a part of an institution where this seemed to happen naturally and organically.”
This fact came as a welcome surprise to first-year student Taylor Wilmot, who felt she benefitted from chatting with alumni during lunchtime breaks. “It was great to hear our differences and similarities, genuinely respect each other’s views and compare the perspectives of different generations,” she said.
But the similarities far outweighed the differences, stressed Blair. He was proud to work side-by-side with all of the volunteers, because of their shared ideals. “These people represent what is good in the world,” Blair observed. “This is a great way to bring the school and alumni together in an atmosphere that represents the true Dickinson character.”
Passing it along
David, a fellow team leader who has taken three service trips to New Orleans, said that this sense of shared identity helps her envision a successful future. “Our alums have inspired us. They have gone on to do wonderful work that gave us all comfort, [realizing] that we, too, can accomplish great things,” she said.
Heather Mead ’02 hopes that both alumni and students will pass on that message of hope. “Dickinson definitely instilled in all of us to give back and help others. Hopefully, we can all inspire others to give back,” she said.
Crabbe, a former community-service student worker who had taken other Dickinson disaster-relief trips to the Gulf Coast and to Guatemala, is resolved to do just that. As a result of her experiences as an undergraduate, Crabbe plans to continue to volunteer and work in disaster relief in her new life as an alum. And, just one week after graduation, she was off to an excellent start.
“We made a difference in at least one person’s life, and that is what I would consider a successful week,” she said.
See photos of the trip.
Learn more about service trips at Dickinson.
Read the volunteers’ blog, “Perseverance and Hope: Five Years Later in New Orleans.”