URI students help rebuild New Orleans

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Two URI faith-based groups changed by the experience

KINGSTON, R.I. –February 12, 2008—Volunteers are slowly rebuilding New Orleans, devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

University of Rhode Island students from two faith-based groups, the Newman Club (Catholic campus organization) and Hillel (Jewish campus organization) were among those volunteers last month. They spent a week during the semester break helping New Orleans, one of the oldest cities in the country, as it is struggles to regain some of its equilibrium.

The students and their leaders not only learned about the hurricane’s impact, they also felt the impact of the experience themselves.

“I gave my heart to this project and left a piece of it in New Orleans,” says Rebecca Davis, a pharmacy student from Berwick, Maine and one of the 17 Newman Club students.

“Our group stayed at Camp Restore, a Lutheran camp in East New Orleans, which houses about 200 volunteers in bunks. Long-term volunteers that run the camp fed us three meals a day, coordinated our work projects, and inspired us…they put their lives on hold to help.”

Davis’s team spent four days sheet-rocking and insulating two homes. The team met one of the homeowners –Ron, about 55 and disabled. He had remodeled his home just before the storm. The hardwood floors were ripped up and holes were everywhere. “Even if homeowners have the money to rebuild there is a problem with unscrupulous contractors who do half the work, take all of the money, and never are seen again,” Davis notes.

The future pharmacist was changed by the experience. “My goals in life remain the same, but I have set the bar a little higher for myself, knowing that I can do more than just be a bystander to all that goes around me.”

“I don’t think we realized how much five days of work can mean to a community that feels like they have already been forgotten,” said Lisa Friedman, Jewish Student Life Coordinator who led 13 URI Hillel students in a rebuilding effort with 100 or so other Hillel students from across the country. Each campus worked on different sites.

“On one day we traveled to the Lower 9th Ward to visit the Make It Right Project with the pink houses, “ says Friedman.

“At first the students thought it was an art exhibit to show the houses that were devastated. What they didn’t realize was that those pink houses stood for ACTUAL houses on those actual spots that had been completely washed away when the levees broke. It was mind boggling.”

URI’s Hillel group worked in the Broadmoor community, which sustained a considerable amount of flooding and devastation.

“We were assigned to two houses, which we subsequently named Victoria and Sally,” says Adam Greenberg, an international engineering student from Warwick who will graduate this May with degrees in mechanical engineering and Spanish. The Hillel team installed fiberglass insulation to walls and ceilings, primed and painted, and gutted rooms to their framework, and cleaned the work site.

The team commuted an hour to New Orleans from a campground in Kiln, Miss. ““We held a Shabbat service in Mississippi. I have always known that Judaism places a great value on assisting those in need and this was a great hands-on opportunity to fulfill this,” Greenberg says.

“After working one night we were given time to explore the city of New Orleans. It was great to see how much of the inner city had been repaired. It was also a great way to enjoy some down time and listen to some jazz or try some famous gumbo,” the future engineer says.

“There is no way, now that I met the people of New Orleans and forged a connection to a place that was so foreign to me before, that I can ignore the cries of those still homeless, jobless, and suffering. I saw it, I heard it, I felt it, and it’s in me now,” comments Friedman.

“The experience transformed me as a person,” says sophomore Matthew Brum of his second trip to the Gulf Coast. Last year, the East Providence resident did an alternate spring break, traveling to Pearlington, Miss. with three other URI Newman Club students led by Tina Neil who led this year’s Newman group.

The URI group helped a family of four rebuild their home. “I never held a paint roller before in my life,” he says, noting that his motivation to help overpowered his uncertainty.

“We gave 515 hours of service and brought back 17 perspectives on mourning, despair, hope, restoration, reality, compassion, and understanding,” said Tina Neil, a 2001 alumna and current graduate student. This was Neil’s third trip aiding in the Katrina relief effort. Neil took a year off as a Jesuit Volunteer before graduate school.

“After my first trip, I was asked to spread the message of need. I fulfill this by fighting social justice issues that affect NOLA (New Orleans) by rebuilding houses, coordinating trips and educating young people and myself about the issues. I hope I never forget the faces of the children living in ghost-like neighborhoods or the families I met who lost everything who took the time to tell me their story. Once you meet the people of New Orleans you will understand why I keep going back.”

Newman Club

Graduate student Tina Neil, West Warwick, R.I

Philip “P.J.” Petrone, 2000 URI alumnus, North Falmouth, Mass.

Graduate student Jacqueline Kemp, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Ryan Andersen ,Johnston, R.I.

Stephen Boisclair , Westerly, R.I.

Sara Brent ,Lumberton, N.J.

Mathrew Brum, East Providence, R.I.

Rebecca Davis, Berwick, Maine

Bret Dio ,Tiverton, R.I.

Stephanie Ferrara, Coventry, R.I.

Brendan Friend, Westerly, R.I.

Carolyn Kopcha, Southington, Conn.

Michelle Krawczynski ,North Hampton, Mass.

Eileen Marran,Smithfield, R.I.

Michael Pilacik, West Natick, N.Y.

Ashley Saucier,Narragansett, R.I.

Kayla Smith , Wakefield, R.I.

Hillel Group

Lisa Friedman, Jewish Student Life Coordinator Clifton Park, NY


Bekki Davis, Pawtucket, R.I.

Taffidy Davis, Rochester, N.H.

Adam Greenberg, Warwick, R.I.

Aaron Hebenstreit, New Britain, Conn.

Evan Katz, Jamestown, R.I.

Erica Kent, Rochester, N.H.

Lauren Koger, Bristol, R.I.

Lauren Magness, Summit, N.J.

Kendra Rosenberg, Plymouth, Mass.

Miriam Sandberg, Silver Spring, Md.

Leah Schectman, Barrington, R.I.

Kirsten Shaw-Munderback, South Portland, Maine

Brett Strassman, Woodbury, N.Y.

Pictured above

URI Newman Club members (l-r) Ryan Andersen of Johnston, Eileen Marran of Smithfield, Rebecca Davis of Berwick, Maine, Stephen Boisclair of Westerly, Michelle Krawczynski of North Hampton, Mass., Carolyn Kopcha of Southington, Conn., and P.J. Petrone of North Falmouth, Mass. ready to paint. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Kopcha.