Danielle Koury went to New Orleans seven years after Hurricane Katrina struck, expecting devastation and desolation on the Gulf Coast.
Instead, on a service trip with other teens from her high school, she found hope and a sense of community.
“You can tell that the people we help really appreciate it,” Koury said recently. “You can see it in their faces, and that feeling is just really good.”
Koury is one of 17 juniors and seniors from Mansfield High School who are paying their own way to spend their April vacation week providing relief efforts in New Orleans.
This is the fourth trip for Debbie Fournier, an earth science and biology teacher who has been taking students there since 2008.
“That first year, we cleared a lot of debris,” she said. Since then, the work has evolved to more restorative projects — planting, building, and painting. “We do a small segment” of continuing projects, Fournier said.
Camps are set up in such a way that volunteers can continue work that other schools, churches, or groups have started.
“You don’t really see the benefit until you go down multiple times like I have,” Fournier said. “At first it didn’t seem like things were progressing the first few years, but in the last two years I’ve seen a huge change and improvement.”
The work is exhausting, but the students are dedicated. “By the end of the week, they all wish they could stay and do more,” Fournier said.
Each year the students apply through teacher recommendations and an interview. Acceptance is not based on grades but on a willingness to do the work.
The main test, Fournier said, is the fund-raising work from November to April.
“They have made a big commitment to this,” Fournier said. Besides attending at least one of two weekly meetings, she said, “They might be canning outside of a store on a weekend in the freezing cold, working bake sales, putting together raffles, doing a mass mailing, asking local businesses for help.”
Fund-raising has been particularly challenging this year, because people ask why they are not helping New Jersey or New York residents hit hard by last year’s Hurricane Sandy.
“It’s a good question, but . . . those areas aren’t ready for a group of teens to show up and work on projects that are still in their formative phases,” said Jeanne Dion, the mother of one of the volunteers, in an e-mail.
“The idea that the country hasn’t forgotten them means a great deal to the residents of the Gulf Coast,” she added.
The group from Mansfield High, which was scheduled to leave Saturday, opted to take a 34-hour train ride to cut costs. Their destination is Camp Restore, a volunteer mission site in New Orleans that houses, feeds, and equips volunteer groups working on projects with partner nonprofits. In addition to the manual labor, the group will spend a day doing community service work in a food pantry.
Cultural experience has also been a valuable part of the trips, organizers say.
“People who returned to rebuild where we were working were happy to tell us their stories of survival and of great loss,” Fournier said in an e-mail. “They served us sweet tea and one couple cooked up a big pot of gumbo. We all learned about the culture and food of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”
Koury said her favorite part of last year’s trip was relating to the people whose communities she worked in.
“People are so friendly,” she said. “They told us a little about themselves, and I was opened up to a whole different world.”
Fournier said members of the group return home with a sense of accomplishment, and experience volunteering in a place away from home.
“Our group takes a week of their own time to help others, and at the same time they gain a learning experience that will last a lifetime,” she said.
Besides the reclamation she finds each year in the communities devastated by the hurricane, Fournier said, she also sees a spark in the students.
“I just see what it does for the kids, too. It takes them out of their comfort zone and brings them to a place to help others, and when they come back . . . they’re still volunteering,” Fournier said. “And that’s the kind of thing you want to do — you want to plant the seeds of volunteerism.”