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ISSUE 120 VOL 12 PUBLISHED 2/23/2007

Ole Spring Relief volunteers return south

By Evan Hall
Contributing Writer

Friday, February 23, 2007

A group of St. Olaf students will be returning to the Gulf Coast in a follow-up to last year’s Ole Spring Relief trip to help rebuild communities still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina.

Under the helm of co-coordinators Tony Olson ‘07, Tremaine Versteeg ‘07 and Victor Wong ‘08, all of whom took part in last spring’s trip, Ole Spring Relief II (OSR II) is addressing significantly different needs in the Gulf Coast from last year. Although vast portions of the greater New Orleans area remain untouched, the clean-up effort has made great strides thanks in no small part to volunteer aid groups like Ole Spring Relief and Habitat for Humanity, which is also sending a group of St. Olaf students to the area.

“Instead of mucking and gutting out houses (something done in early recovery stages), we plan to do a lot more with actually rebuilding the neighborhoods,” Wong said. Students will be helping with skilled labor activities such as carpentry, plumbing, painting, drywall, flooring, electrical, roofing and many other repairs. St. Olaf faculty, alumni and Northfield community members with experience in these areas will join St. Olaf students as small group leaders. According to Olson, the goal is to have a ratio of six to seven students per every skilled worker.

As it did last year, OSR II will be working in conjunction with Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR), an organization committed to aiding communities ravaged by disaster. Unlike last spring’s trip, however, OSR II will not be working in Biloxi, Miss. Volunteers will focus on reconstruction projects in the New Orleans area. Due to the increased demand for workers with specialized skills and the capacity constraints of the New Orleans LDR facility, OSR II is planning to send a more modest group than last year, setting the limit at 140 students. As of last Friday’s deadline, there were still 13 vacant spots on the sign-up list.

The original Ole Spring Relief was the brainchild of Wong and fellow student senator Ishanaa Rambachan ‘08, who spearheaded the daunting task of organizing a relief trip to the Gulf Coast last spring.

“When Hurricane Katrina hit, it came at a time when I was looking for some sort of volunteer opportunity that would involve a large amount of students and allow them to directly work with those in need,” Wong said. “And it just started from there, a grand idea of sending hundreds of St. Olaf students down there to help.”

In all, 184 St. Olaf students traveled to New Orleans and to Biloxi, Miss. last spring, where they witnessed first-hand Katrina’s vast destruction – and the amazing strength of its survivors.

“Houses were crushed together with several houses stacked on top of each other,” Olson said, who worked in New Orleans’ lower ninth ward. “The stench and mold inside of the houses was practically unbearable, courtesy of the rotted food inside refrigerators that had not been touched for sixth months,” he said.

Despite the overwhelming sense of ruin, Olson was touched by the hope displayed by the homeowners. “Amongst all the destruction and after all the pain and struggle, they wanted to rebuild their communities,” said Olson. “I believe it is the realization of the communities’ perseverance in the face of tragedy that inspired so many of us to return this year.”

For Wong, the sheer enormity of the rebuilding process facing the Gulf Coast hit home the first day. “After a full day’s work with twenty-plus people, we realized that we had only partially addressed the needs of one homeowner,” Wong said. It dawned on us that the reconstruction of the communities damaged by the hurricane would take years. And yet, it felt so good to know that we were a part of this process and the gratitude that the homeowners expressed was mutual. We were getting just as much out of it as they were.”

Although over a year and a half has passed since Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans, the city still faces an uphill battle for recovery. Decaying houses linger in disrepair, schools remain closed, hospitals are swamped, violence has surged and a brain drain crisis looms on the horizon. As New Orleans natives have trickled back to their homes to try to piece together their lives in the aftermath of the storm, they are still very much in need of assistance.

Hoping to pick up where last year’s OSR left off, a planning committee started meeting weekly from the outset of the school year to work out the logistics of funding, budgeting and publicizing OSR II. The project has received financial support from the Lilly Foundation, Volunteer Network, Student Senate and Student Congregation, which is donating its February offerings to OSR II. In addition, volunteers raised funds through the sale of the old Boe Chapel pews, working coat check at Christmas Fest and taking donations for Mardi Gras beads and masks outside Stav Hall.

According to Olson, the planning committee has raised over $40,000 to date, which will largely cover the expenses of transportation, food and lodging. Students participating in OSR II are expected to pay $250 to help defray costs.

Versteeg firmly believes the trip is an eye-opening and ultimately rewarding experience well worth the spring break sacrifice.

“To have someone tell you, whom you barely know, that you are part of rebuilding their world ... Those are the kind of things trips like this let students experience,” Versteeg said.

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