It has been nearly a decade since hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, but the damage they caused was so pervasive that much remains to be done in the way of recovery. Each January, a dedicated group of Wheaton students, faculty and staff travel to New Orleans to help with rebuilding efforts.
The Wheaton club NOLA, led by co-presidents Natalie Reynoso ’15 and Emily Bryer ’15, sponsors the winter break trip. This year, the group will fly into New Orleans on the afternoon of Saturday, January 10, and return on Saturday, January 17.
To make the trip happen, NOLA members spend most of the year fundraising through events and activities that range from bake sales to babysitting. The group also receives funding support from the Student Government Association.
One of NOLA’s biggest fundraisers, the faculty/staff versus students basketball game, took place last week. NOLA members also will be conducting raffle sales during the upcoming faculty/staff craft fair on Thursday, December 4, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., to help raise money for the trip.
In addition to helping the residents of New Orleans, “our main goal is for those who take the trip to walk away with an understanding of what New Orleans is all about,” Reynoso said. “We want them to understand how Hurricane Katrina affected this area. We also want them to understand the people and culture, and not just treat it as a crisis area.”
On Sunday, the group will hop into rented vans to tour disaster stricken neighborhoods so that trip participants can see the damage and the ongoing rebuilding efforts firsthand.
This year four staff members and 17 students plan to go to work with the St. Bernard Project, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to ensure that communities at risk of, or impacted by, disasters have the resources to prepare and recover in the most prompt and efficient way possible. The Wheaton group will help with the painting, cleaning and gutting of homes, and any other needed tasks. Wheaton technical support coordinator Jessie Durand is the club’s advisor, and trades manager Jeff Dalrymple will offer his expertise as a carpenter on the trip, as he has for the past four years.
Bryer, who also has been involved with NOLA for four years and will be making her third trip, noted how rewarding the hard work is: “The most rewarding thing for me is making progress on somebody’s home. In the past, we have had the opportunity to meet several of the homeowners and to hear their stories. When you hear those stories it makes all the physical and mental exhaustion that comes with rebuilding projects melt away, because it’s so easy compared to what the homeowners have gone through. It is already nine years since Hurricane Katrina and if I can help someone get even a little closer to being able to move back into their home, I’ve done what I set out to do.”
After working during the day, group members plan to have dinner together and discuss articles that will be assigned by the co-presidents before the trip on the socio-economic problems facing the area.
“It’s really important for us to have an educational aspect be a part of the club,” said Reynoso, who has been involved with NOLA since her freshman year. This will be her third trip to help out.
“NOLA has been such an important part of my Wheaton experience; it is through this club that I have met and connected with several faculty and staff as well as many of my fellow students,” she said. “Many of the people who have gone on this trip are some of the most passionate, caring and compassionate individuals I have ever met.
“This club means so much to me because I really believe in what we are doing. I don’t go to New Orleans because I expect to get something out of it. I go because the need in New Orleans goes beyond gutting houses, painting walls or putting down floors. They need to know that we haven’t stopped caring about them or the ordeals that they continue to face. They are our fellow citizens, and as such, I believe we have the responsibility to help them get back on their feet. I do not go with the assumption that I am the solution to their problems. I simply show up, ask how I can help, and follow their lead. It is about joining them in the rebuilding of their own city so that they can once again be proud of the place they have always called home.”—Adam Kilduff ’16
——Natalie Reynoso ’15