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March 16, 2006



student in New Orleans
Kyla Quillin '08 surveys a devastated landscape from a salvaged bicycle rehabbed by Emergency Communities.

A contingent of Bryn Mawr students spent Spring Break on the coast not in a beach resort, but in tents pitched on ground that Hurricane Katrina had flooded with oil-refinery toxins last September. Their service as volunteer relief workers impressed on them the severity of the devastation that still remains in southern Louisiana, but it also affirmed their faith in human resiliency and the capacity of motivated people to create and sustain a community, they said.

The students, sponsored by the College's Civic Engagement Office, volunteered at the Made With Love Café and Grill, a temporary dining facility operated by Emergency Communities. The "Dining Dome," a large geodesic tent, is located in St. Bernard Parish, adjacent to New Orleans' devastated Ninth Ward. It is surrounded by a tent community of volunteers and facilities that provide clothing and other necessities to returning residents and volunteer relief workers.

Much of the organizing for the trip was done by Tiffany Reed '06, says Service and Activism Director Debbie Rubin. Reed researched volunteering options and found Emergency Communities, a grassroots relief effort that aims to "fill the gaps" left by traditional relief models. She spent many hours working out logistics and collecting the necessary documents, Rubin says, and then was unable to make the trip.

Reed's efforts, however, were appreciated by the other members of the group, who returned full of enthusiasm for Emergency Communities. Julia Eddy '07, Alexi Ernstoff '08, Maeve O'Hara '08, Kyla Quillin '08, Arielle Schecter '09, Tiffany Shumate '08, Sydney Silver '09, Sarah Simons '08, Lauren Smith '06, Julia Spiegelman '08, Hannah Waterhouse '09 and CEO Student Involvement Coordinator Nadira Branch found the spirit of the relief workers and community residents so appealing that some had a hard time tearing themselves away at the end of the week.

"The people who organized Emergency Communities didn't have a lot of resources," Eddy said at a meeting of the group after its return. "For the most part, they don't have property or position, but they were able to organize this incredibly effective effort. The FEMA people visited to see how they did it. They were asking, 'Why isn't our food as good as theirs?'"

But some of the volunteers, Shumate noted, had dropped everything postponed graduate school or taken leaves from college to join the relief effort. "It takes a lot of courage to give up everything and live in a tent with two pairs of pants," she said.

All the students praised the efforts of the Made With Love Café's cooks. "They couldn't always control what food was coming in, so they had to be creative," said Spiegelman. "They made some very imaginative meals, and the food was excellent."

But more than the quality of the cuisine, the students were inspired by the sense of community the group has created.

"There was no separation between the volunteers and the residents," said Spiegelman. "We shared everything, and that inspired trust. I was surprised at how open the residents were about telling their stories of the flood."

Simons agreed. "One of my favorite things was sitting with a new person at each meal and hearing all their stories."

"I was interested in hearing their accounts of the hurricane, but I was a little hesitant to ask about it," said O'Hara, "You don't want to be nosy. But a lot of them seemed to be eager to talk about it. I think it helps them come to terms with their experiences."

What struck the students was the emergence of community among such a diverse group of people. "There was a range there from free-love, rock-climbing hippies to pickup-truck-driving, ribs-eating Southerners to conservative family-values people, and they all got along," Spiegelman said.

At one point during the week, a band performed, Waterhouse said, "and all those different people got up and danced with each other. It was an amazing thing to see."

Spiegelman also said she was surprised at how optimistic and determined residents were.

"It looks like almost nothing has been done since the hurricane," she said. "There are piles of debris everywhere, and most of the buildings are uninhabitable. I was expecting the people to be as devastated as the land, but instead I found an incredible sense of community and hope. These people are survivors."

The students will report their experiences to the community at a panel discussion hosted by the CEO on Tuesday, March 28, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., in the Campus Center Main Lounge.


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