Chico students dived right in

Volunteers who labored to help victims of Hurricane Katrina share their stories

Lauren Slingsby (left) and Trish Hamar

Lauren Slingsby (left) and Trish Hamar

Photo by Tina Flynn

Lauren Slingsby and Trish Hamar arrived in New Orleans at the beginning of spring break. They found homes marked with blue paint—"Possible bodies"—and with red—"Dog taken … No ferret.”

Most mornings, they drove from a middle-class residential neighborhood past the Superdome and into areas like the hard-hit Ninth Ward, where residents still didn’t have the basic services, including electricity, they needed to begin rebuilding their homes. As some of the only available laborers, the Chico State University students stripped homes and other buildings to the studs, which were moldy, and walked on carpets that still sounded squishy months after storm season had passed.

“We saw waterlines above our heads,” said Hamar, one of 27 Chico State engineering students who traveled to New Orleans to volunteer with activists from Common Ground Collective, a Katrina relief organization.

The students found that priorities had changed permanently in the Ninth Ward and in other devastated communities. They found themselves clearing churches so that the buildings could be reused as community service centers when residents returned. They reused debris like fallen roof tiles to lay pathways through a self-sustaining park that was designed to show future residents the benefits of recycling.

But their enthusiasm for their work wasn’t enough to protect them against the emotional impact of witnessing the great poverty and destruction still visible. Blue tarps were still stretched across roofs to hold them in place, and a deli that was boarded up after the storms still smelled of rotting meat. The eerie Ninth Ward was empty compared to more affluent neighborhoods full of people living in FEMA trailers and working on their homes.

Chico State students help clean up a hurricane-damaged church during their volunteer trip to New Orleans this spring.

Photo by Kevin Geroy

“The media portray it as if everything is being rebuilt,” said Slingsby, scoffing. “Maybe in Mississippi,” she said.

Deanna Berg traveled to Hattiesberg, Miss., with students from the campus-affiliated service organization Community Action Volunteers in Education, which she directs. Her group cleaned up debris-strewn nature trails and helped with after-school programs in low-income housing projects. They also mucked out the house of a wealthy man who had been stranded on his pool table for days during the flood. Berg remembers seeing a crab surface in his swimming pool at lunchtime.

“Hello,” one of the students exclaimed. “The Gulf of Mexico was in their house!”

After spending spring break in the south, three of Berg’s 10 students have asked her how they might join service organizations after they graduate from Chico State.

Along with the benefits of their hard work, students remember the lasting destruction, the lack of government intervention in the poorest neighborhoods and the surreal incongruities, like the difference between how white and black people were treated.

Leah Robinson, of Adventure Outings, was one of five students who ditched school for two weeks in September to go down south immediately after the hurricane struck.

“I’ve never been face to face with racism,” said Robinson.

She described Red Cross shelter workers who rationed items like crackers and hygiene products as if the African-American professionals in their shelters were no better than thieves who wanted to hoard everything they could get.

Photo by Kevin Geroy

When white people arrived, said Robinson, their boxes were filled to the brim and carried to their cars for them.

“Down there, I saw white Southern people in the position of helping being very degrading and disrespectful to the families affected by the hurricane,” said Robinson.

Robinson found that complaining didn’t make her very popular. Her team became known as “the renegade troupe from Chico” as they helped manage meals and clean up in one of the emergency shelters.

“We were stepping on people’s toes. … The families loved us,” said Robinson.

They didn’t volunteer down south for the recognition, but Chico State students and staff from these relief teams had a brief moment in the sun April 18, when the Chico City Council awarded them certificates of appreciation for their efforts. Representatives from Adventure Outings, C.A.V.E., Campus Crusade for Christ and the College of Engineering, Computer Science and Construction Management were publicly held up as examples for the rest of us to follow.