SMWC students learn of love, history, resilience on New Orleans trip

April 5th, 2017 | SMWC

Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum
SMWC students pose in front of the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum in New Orleans. The students visited the museum during an alternative spring break trip last month.

By Dianne Frances D. Powell

When Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC) students visited New Orleans last month, they experienced a unique culture, learned about the city’s link to SMWC’s foundress and volunteered their time to residents in need.

But there’s more. The participants of the week-long alternative spring break trip said they gained new perspectives when they spent time in the city which was devastated in 2005 by the fifth deadliest hurricane and the costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States, Hurricane Katrina.

“I was able to see God in new ways throughout this trip. God has helped me to see how I can be of use even in the smallest ways,” said Kristin Foster, a sophomore from Metropolis, Illinois. “I think what surprised me the most was how real poverty was to people. Being from a very small town in southern Illinois, I know that homelessness exists but … it [New Orleans] opened my eyes in a new way,” she said.

“I would say the biggest takeaway was how I grew in my faith, seeing how God worked in my life [and] how God has been working in the New Orleans community for the past 12 years.”

“Despite all the horrible things the people of New Orleans have been through, they are so positive and so welcoming and loving of people who are taking their time to give back to their community.”

Kristin Zellars and Allison Payonk painting
SMWC students Kristin Zellars and Allison Payonk, painting the ceiling of a house in New Orleans which was affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The volunteer project was part of the alternative spring break trip in March.

On March 4, Foster and 14 other students, accompanied by four chaperones, arrived in New Orleans with an itinerary packed with experiences designed to give them an authentic experience. The first thing they did was attend mass at St. Augustine Church and throughout the week served in the food pantry, painted and repaired water damage on a house impacted by the hurricane, visited Preservation Hall, French Market, the Old Ursuline convent and museum and Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum.

Seeing the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum, which tells the history of the neighborhood most devastated by Katrina, made a big impact on sophomore Alyssa Henson’s worldview. While she learned of tales of social injustice, she also saw compassion in a display of cards — with words of support for residents of the neighborhood — inside one of the back rooms.

“I just felt so much love then,” said Henson, a Terre Haute resident. She said she gained a deeper understanding of love upon seeing the kindness and generosity of the people, despite adversity. “I really saw love and forgiveness in action when I was in New Orleans,” she said.

This trip was the first time SMWC’s alternative spring break had been back to New Orleans in more than a decade, said Andrea Beyke, executive director of mission effectiveness. Alternative spring break began at the College 11 years ago; Its first trip was to New Orleans to help rebuild after Katrina.

“It was neat to go back to our roots, to see the difference that had been made in those 11 years,” Beyke said. “But also, we connected it back to Saint Mother Theodore Guerin’s journey.”

Students in front of Preservation Hall
Participants of SMWC's Alternative Spring Break trip in March posed for a quick picture while in line at Preservation Hall at French Quarter, New Orleans.

“When she came back from France the second time with money from Queen Amelia after the fire here at The Woods, she came back through New Orleans. She fell ill with yellow fever. The Ursuline Sisters of New Orleans took her in,” Beyke said.

Marketing and graphic design major Kayla Moats said this visit with the sisters made her feel more connected to the history of SMWC and the legacy of its foundress, Guerin.

In her writings, the 8th American saint talked about the rich culture of the area and of her compassion for the slaves being sold during the time, Beyke said. “To go back and to still see the racial divide that is … very evident especially during and after Katrina was very eye-opening,” she said.

The alternative spring break participants went on the trip intending to help people, but little did they realize their lives would be changed, too. “The students came back with a renewed sense of how hope can come from disaster,” Beyke said, “and how lending a hand is aiding in that hope. We have the ability to make a difference to create hope and bring hope to people …”

With a balance of culture, service, spirituality, and fun, students got a well-rounded education from the trip, which is an emphasis at SMWC. “It is part of our mission statement to be part of change and to take up social responsibility,” Beyke said.

This week-long education may not have happened inside a classroom, but participants still picked up lessons along the way applicable to their chosen majors.

Students painting blue house
SMWC students join other volunteers in painting the house of a Hurricane Katrina survivor.

“I am an elementary education major so one part of my education is being out in the community and meeting other members, really immersing myself in the community,” said Harmony Walsh of Sullivan. “It was very nice to go to New Orleans and see another culture and community so I can see the … [racial and social] diversity I might have in my classroom,” she said.

As a music therapy major, making lasting connections is important to Foster. “So this trip I got a chance to not only bond with my peers here at the College but I got a chance to meet some really incredible people, people that I know impacted how I view the world. There are so many people out there that are making a positive difference. It was really inspiring to get to work alongside with them,” she said.

For Moats, alternative spring break wasn’t only a time spent on service and learning but also on reflection. College life is busy, so she treasured the opportunity. “It made me reflect on how I’m living my life. It gave me an appreciation for what I have,” she said.

Regardless of major or background, the students had one more important takeaway from this mission trip: The realization that they can help others in their community everyday and they don’t need a spring break trip to do it.