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As Easy as "ABC": Celebrating UNH's Student Volunteers

By Bill Ross, professor, Milne Special Collections and Archives
April 4, 2007

At Camp Hope, a former school in Violet, St. Bernard Parish. UNH students — with Professor Bill Ross — spent a rainy day building bunk beds for future residents at the camp.

A year ago, I traveled down to New Orleans during spring break as a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. The work gutting flood-damaged homes was physically and emotionally draining, but the experience was rewarding, both for the insights gained and the new friendships made.

I made the trip again this year, but my experience was quite different. First, work along the Gulf has moved beyond clean-up to construction. And second, I had the opportunity to work alongside 36 students who were among the more than 100 students who volunteered throughout the south as part of the UNH Alternative Break Challenge (UNH-ABC).

I am currently teaching a new inquiry course entitled “New Orleans: Place, Meaning, and Context.” In my syllabus I invited students to seek service opportunities in Louisiana during spring break. Seven of my students accepted the challenge, five as part of UNH-ABC, one with the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, and another who traveled independently to report on the volunteer efforts of his fellow students.

On March 9th, I traveled south focused both on the work ahead and on the learning outcomes of the students from my course. What I did not foresee was how much I would learn from them and their fellow students.

For one, I got to see New Orleans and Louisiana through a much fresher set of eyes. From a student’s first walk down Bourbon Street, the involuntary tapping of a toe to traditional jazz played at Preservation Hall, to the first taste of beignets from Café du Monde; it all took on new meaning.

UNH student Christina Stark works on a Habitat build in the Upper Ninth Ward, New Orleans.

And more importantly, I had the pleasure of seeing them in action as they worked in Habitat for Humanity’s Musicians’ Village in the Upper Ninth Ward, landscaping yards, constructing walls and flooring, and painting – in essence, doing everything they were asked to do and more.

They volunteered for kitchen duty, built bunk beds for future residents at the camp where we stayed, and thoughtfully interacted with the residents of St. Bernard and Orleans Parishes; people who persevere in the face of having lost everything. They insisted on visiting the desolation of the Lower Ninth Ward, not to gawk as tourists, but to reflect prayerfully on the destruction and subsequent diaspora of an entire, close-knit community. And one-by-one, they asked why nothing has happened.

While many college students traveled to resorts or at the very least enjoyed the comforts of their own beds during spring break, these students slept on cots in a gutted school in rural Louisiana, ate previously frozen sandwiches for lunch, and through it all, they had a great time. And in the process they not only learned about another, vastly different part of the country, but quite a bit about themselves, as well.

One of the groups of UNH students who worked at Habitat for Humanity's Musicians' Village in the Upper Ninth Ward, New Orleans.

In all, nearly 200 UNH students traveled far from home during spring break to work on behalf of others. And while I wasn’t able to witness the work and learning that took place elsewhere, what I saw in Louisiana should give the university community much to be proud of.

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