As some students escaped to the balmy tropics and hit the beach over spring break, over 50 students headed south in search of more than just sunny weather. These students arrived in New Orleans not to sample the Creole cuisine or discover the culture of the Mardi Gras town. Instead, they devoted a week of their time off to volunteer and, in the case of eight students, to film a documentary on the effects of Hurricane Katrina.
The eight students were members of the student group Purple Valley Films, which formed in the fall semester. They began planning a trip that would give them the opportunity to make a film and settled on New Orleans as their destination. “I didn’t think New Orleans right away. We were thinking all over the place, of going to another country even,” said co-president Ariel Kavoussi ’11. The inspiration for New Orleans came from Ariel’s stepfather, who had gone previously with a church group. “My stepdad then told me about the Church of Annunciation, so I called them and they were really excited about it. They were also really generous about how much we had to pay them to stay there and reduced the price a lot,” said Kavoussi. Helen Cha ’11, vice president of the club, secured some funding for the alternative spring break trip from the College.
While staying at the Church of the Annunciation in New Orleans, the group worked closely with the Broadmoor Improvement Association, a neighborhood group that has been working to help the victims of the hurricane for the past three years. Each day, the group split up, with half setting out to do volunteer work and the other half working on the film. Over three years have passed since the immense destruction and chaos caused by the hurricane, but the group members still found plenty of work to be done.
Working with the Broadmoor Improvement Association, the student volunteers called residents of the neighborhood to see how many were still in need of mattresses, and then made mattress deliveries. “Even though it’s a few years after the storm, a lot of the people in the area didn’t even have mattresses, just basic beds, not even considering a house, but just a mattress,” said Cha.
As they worked on that and other projects, the students met volunteers from across the country. “We worked with other volunteers who came to the church, which could house more than 100 volunteers. We met people from a Jesuit high school in Oregon, along with students from the Dalton School in New York City. It was nice to see people coming from all over to help,” said Cha.
The group decided to focus their documentary on the continuing need for volunteers to help out in the recovery process. “We interviewed a lot of people, ranging from ordinary people on the streets to Malik Rahim, one of the founders of Common Ground Relief,” Cha said. The group interviewed people living in Tent City and several people who they helped through the community service projects.
One woman they interviewed was living in a FEMA trailer while volunteers were working on building her a house. Seeing the house under construction was “a really great experience because it really proved to us that this is what we can do, kids just like us,” said Prim Songkaeo ’11.
Although the stories of those especially affected by Hurricane Katrina were extremely personal, the group found that residents were very willing to share their accounts. Most were even grateful that there were so many people who were interested in their personal experiences. “It might be a shock to people from New England that the people down south were a lot more willing to talk about it. Perhaps that was because they haven’t been heard, and it’s such a traumatizing experience that people need to talk about it, to process the information,” said Steven Cheng ’10. “Just going up to anyone, if you show them you’re sincere, if they know you’re a volunteer, there’s something mysterious in the way they open up and share their life stories with you.”
Not everyone in the club was comfortable with the idea of interviewing literally anyone they came across, but it turned out to be an important part of the filming process. “I wasn’t so comfortable going in myself and interviewing homeless people, but one of our volunteers pushed it and I’m glad she did,” said Kavoussi. “A lot of these people just lost their houses. They go to work, and they’re just like anyone else.”
In fact, some members of the group found their interactions with residents to be the most rewarding part of the whole experience. “You realize that all you have to do to make someone happy is just go there and show them that you’re interested and you care enough to listen to them,” Songkaeo said.
The group also interviewed fellow volunteers to emphasize what can be accomplished by anyone willing to help. “The most memorable moment for me was talking to a group of college students from Chicago working for Habitat [for Humanity]. They were replacing the roof of a building and invited us up to film them,” said Stephen Luther ’11. “They seemed very passionate about their work and expressed interest in returning to New Orleans for future spring breaks. I was inspired by the commitment and caring displayed by these fellow students.”
The group returned to Williamstown with 14 hours of footage to edit and much more to ponder. “You leave that place with a sense that it can’t end there. You understand a sense of community and what it means to reach out to someone, and you learn to be grateful for what you have,” Songkaeo said. “If you go down there, you’ll touch a side of yourself that you would not be able to get in touch with otherwise.”
Other members described how inspiring the experience proved to be. “The New Orleans area will not be fully recovered for many years to come,” Luther said. “College students have made a large impact on the recovery process and we would just like to urge students to keep on volunteering. I, for one, plan on returning to New Orleans next spring break because I know there will still be plenty of work to be done.”
The students from Purple Valley Films may not have returned from spring break with bronzed bodies or quirky souvenirs from the Bahamas, but they did come back with a fresh perspective on what some fear has become a forgotten tragedy.