URI students return from Louisiana and unforgettable spring break

Posted on
KINGSTON, R.I. – April 18, 2007 – While many college students traveled south for Spring Break in search of tans and warm weather, 19 students from the University of Rhode Island traveled south for other reasons. These students spent their spring vacation in Louisiana, building homes for families that had been affected by Hurricane Katrina last year.

The students, joined by two alumni from the community, the Dean of Pharmacy Donald Letendre and professor Gail Faris, rotated working on 18 houses in a 5-acre area. From March 18 through March 21, they moved from house to house, all of which were at different stages of construction. The students worked with community volunteers as well as student volunteers from five other schools to aid Habitat for Humanity in their 100-house build across Louisiana.

“It was the most amazing experience in my life and the most life-changing,” said Ben Carter, a junior communication studies major from Andover, Mass. “We got to meet some of the people whose houses we were building, and that gave us a real connection to the family. You are actually doing something to make a difference, and you really want to try to make it the best window, the best door, the best house you can.”

“Habitat really lets you get in and get involved,” said Kelly Beatty, a junior elementary education major from Sherman, Conn. “I was truly one of the builders there and learned that I was capable of actually doing something this big.”

According to Gail Faris, coordinator of the Academic Alternative Spring Break and professor of the accompanying course Community Service 302, the students also made several personal sacrifices. The living quarters consisted of one large room of bunk beds, three showers per gender for hundreds of people, and no refrigerators. The students, however, did not mind. They cooked for each other, shortened their showers and didn’t mind because they were doing it for “their friends.”

Tripp Hutchinson, a graduate student in the College Student Personnel Program from Mechanicsville, Va., was able to return to his southern roots through the trip. Hutchinson said that being in Louisiana opened the eyes of the students who thought that much more had already been done to aid recovery. “It is one thing to hear about a disaster or tragedy, but there is nothing like being there to actually see it,” Hutchinson said, “New Orleans bears scars of what happened, and getting that message out is important.”

During the week, the students were able to meet up with five other URI students working in Pearlington, Miss., and visit URI alumni living in Louisiana. On the last night of “spring break,” all of the participating schools had a large bonfire and told stories about the week. Rachael Gately, a junior from Somers, Conn. studying to become a veterinarian, recalled that URI was the first and last school to be at the building sites. “We were so eager,” Gately said. “They had to pull us off of the ladders at the end of the day. We felt like we hadn’t finished. We can’t wait to go back.”

Faris encourages students to get involved in the program. “It would be great to institutionalize this program for the University,” Faris said. “It could grow bigger and be held during winter intersession, Thanksgiving break, or summer vacation. It is really different because it connects the experience with a class and discusses the issues.

“The students saw that they could actually build a house. They thought about something and actually went out and did it. People will never see the framework that these students created, but the work they did is the only thing keeping that house up.”

University of Rhode Island students build a shed to accompany one of the many houses they built in Louisiana this past spring break. Photo courtesy of student Kelly Beatty.