By Sylvia Brooks, Staff Writer and Shannah Cotton, Editor
University of Maine at Farmington (UMF) students returned to New Orleans over February break to continue helping a variety of organizations with relief efforts from the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Returning for the fourth year, the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, a UMF club, brought students from UMF, as well as three students from Bates College, to New Orleans to work with Habitat for Humanity, Project Greenlight, and Project Homecoming in their relief efforts.
For the majority of the trip the volunteers spent their time working with Habitat for Humanity. While expecting to be building the framework of a future home, “We ended up digging holes and working on the foundation of a house,” said Samantha Sturtevant, a senior at UMF and first time participant in Serve Up. “On Monday, we worked with Project Green Light.” Project Green Light started out as a small organization that gave out lights bulbs to people living in New Orleans after the tragedy struck. “They expanded to making community gardens, so the first day we worked on one of the gardens that was in rough shape,” said Sturtevant.
Despite the amount of manual labor, the attendees still had a great time. “I can’t think of a better way to spend my break. I come back drained, but also energized,” said Chuck Ellis, a UMF graduate and staff worker for the trip. Ellis is also the advisor for the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship at UMF.
Abdirahman Hussein, a sophomore at UMF found the experience to be highly influential. “You’d be so surprised by the difference one person could make. We worked the entire day building a house and painting; the more volunteers, the easier the work is, the stronger the team becomes. It’s a chance to work with a team, meet new people, have fun, and make a difference all at the same time” said Hussein.
Volunteers not only had the opportunity to help build homes for Katrina survivors, but they also were able to meet the people that they were supporting. “I think that the most awesome part was meeting the people,” said Sturtevant. One lady, a single mother of two, helped lay the foundation for a house that would soon become hers. According to Sturtevant, the families that receive a home from Habitat for Humanity must work a certain amount of hours on the home that they are going to receive.
One reason why progress rebuilding New Orleans has taken so long has to do with contractor fraud. “They say ‘oh yeah we’ll do your floors’ and then they rob them of their money and leave. They can’t get charged because if they do a minimal amount of work it’s still considered contracting. [The woman whose house we worked on] had that done several times,” said Schoenberg about the ways people have taken advantage of New Orleans residents over the years. “That’s why it felt so good to actually be making a difference in her life”.
Hussein’s committment to rebuilding New Orleans stems from his desire to see these people rise above what they have gone through and reclaim their city. “If Katrina took everything away from them, they wouldn’t let their identity and where they come from to be taken away as well. Their ancestors and their history all belong there” said Hussein.
As this trip is through the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, not only is it a volunteer experience, but it is also a spiritual journey for many. “We wanted to encourage them [the volunteers] to build a relationship with Christ … You could definitely see God working through us on the trip,” said Sturtevant. If any individual does not share the same faith that Intervarsity Christian Fellowship does, they are still strongly encouraged to go on the trip. “You get to have conversations that you typically cannot or do not get to have on a college campus,” said Ellis.
Rachel Schoenberg, a sophomore and second year volunteer, does not share the same faith as the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, and currently identifies with the Jewish faith, yet she still enjoyed the spiritual conversations during the trip. “That was one of the most important aspects for me, it was really interesting to see the differences in people’s faith.”
The 40 students who volunteered traveled 33 hours by bus to New Orleans, leaving from the UMF campus at 2:00 p.m. on February 14th. The overall cost per student that went on the trip was $595 dollars, according to Ellis, who was also the main financial advisor for Serve Up . This is not to say that each student paid the full amount to go on the trip. “The way that we do fundraising is different, we asked students who could pay, to pay, but some people could not pay anything, so they did not,” said Ellis. He also asked people and churches in the Farmington area and local community for private donations and sponsorship. That being said, the group still has about $5,700 left to raise for Serve Up, which they will be trying to raise within the next few weeks.