While most students on spring break head to the beach or take some well-deserved time off from studying and classes, almost two dozen students at the School of Law traveled to New Orleans to help those still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
They teamed up with Catholic Charities' Helping Hands Project and went to the city during the weekend of March 19. They spent three days removing rotten furniture, walls, and fixtures from severely damaged homes in St. Bernard Parish. All homes they worked on belonged to elderly residents or residents with disabilities.
First-year law student Jennifer Katz described the people they helped. "We worked through Catholic Charities. They were taking applications from homeowners in New Orleans who needed their homes to be gutted before they could be rebuilt."
Back at the School of Law on April 13, the students shared their experiences at a lunchtime meeting, which was attended by almost 100 students, faculty, and staff.
Karen Rothenberg, JD, MPA, dean of the School of Law, praised first-year law student Clayton Solomon, who spearheaded the trip. "Clayton was determined that this trip to New Orleans was going to happen-it was the right thing to do," she said. "And with creativity and drive and perseverance-which is what it takes to be a good leader-he, together with his colleagues, figured out a way of finding support. Not only is leadership figuring out the means to do something, it is also having the passion collectively to make it happen. I want to stress how proud I am of all of you."
Dean Rothenberg surprised the students with what she said next. "The alumni association will be giving a gift of $100 to each student to help defray the travel costs," she said. The students had paid for the trip with donations from fellow students, family, friends, and faculty members.
Students who went to New Orleans also spoke, as pictures of their efforts were shown in the background on a monitor. "Katrina hit during the first week of law school-you're already swamped with work. You see the enormity of what's happening on your TV screen and there's so little you can do about it-or at least that's how it felt. I felt very small," said Solomon.
"It started off as a very informal idea that I mentioned during lunch with some people from my section. Then it grew to other students." By the time they had finalized the details of the trip, 22 students had joined in.
"I'm from south Florida, so I've been through some hurricane experiences, like Andrew, and although Katrina was unbelievably worse, it still inspired me to do this," said first-year law student Alicia Welch. "I was absolutely shocked to see that so many areas of New Orleans were essentially the same as they were the day after the hurricane. So in my mind, although giving money was helpful, it was just not enough. They need people to go down there and do the work."
First-year law student Heidi Price spoke of seeing an elderly man rebuilding his home on his own. "He had been out there for three or four months. He was so excited that his tools had survived and that he could use them. He was really thankful that we were there," she said.
Stephan Stohler, another first-year law student, spoke about the difficulties that residents encounter when they return to their homes. "The resources are precious," he said. "In St. Bernard Parish there's one store open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. for the whole neighborhood. You can't build a house if you don't have a job. And you can't work if you don't have a home."
Solomon added, "We were shocked at what little progress had been made, but on the other hand, we were equally shocked at how much of an impact we were having." The School of Law students were joined by thousands of other volunteers, noted Solomon.
The students all agreed that the experience is one they will never forget. "We did everything together-traveled, ate, slept in the same military tent," said first-year law student Nina Schichor. "You really get to know someone when you're holding the water bowl so they can brush their teeth."
Other students who took part in the mission were first-year law students Cesar Clark, Jeanne Lynch, Deepti Kulkarni, Aaron Chiu, Ben Peoples, Lauren Bennett, Rita Turner, Shane Wilkerson, Teri Reich, Emilie Aracil, Jessica Sanet, and Melissa Martinez. They were joined by second-year law students Chrissy Caetano, Amy Lee, and Sarah Kotula, and UMB students Trayce Brewer and Jeremy Steinberg.
"We were able to make a $1,100 donation to the Helping Hands Project. The work is nowhere near done-they're going to be rebuilding for years to come," said Solomon.
He talked about how students can stay involved in the relief efforts, including donating to a book drive sponsored by UMB's USGA, taking part in externship opportunities with local courts and the Public Defender's Office in Louisiana, and getting involved with the Student Hurricane Network, a national association of law students from across the country that assists communities affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.