Livingstone students spend week in New Orleans repairing some of the damage wrought by Katrina
By Laurie Willis
Special to the Salisbury Post
NEW ORLEANS ń A group of Livingstone College students returned Wednesday from New Orleans, where they spent a week repairing homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina, volunteering at a festival honoring legendary jazz musician Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, helping prepare space for new exhibitions at a city museum and having fun.
The historic trip for student leaders highlighted community service, civic responsibility and activism and was the brainchild of Livingstone President Dr. Jimmy R. Jenkins Sr.
“The trip was a monumental success,” Jenkins said. “Our students helped people whose lives were devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Their work was hard at times, but that didn’t deter them. I expect this trip to be the first of many for Livingstone College and its deserving students.”
The students and members of Livingstone’s faculty and staff left for New Orleans just after midnight July 29. Shortly after arriving in The Big Easy, they went on a three-hour bus tour of the city, led by Mary Beth Romig, director of communications and public relations for New Orleans Metroppolitan Convention & Visitor’s Bureau.
As the bus rolled through New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, among the city’s hardest hit areas during the 2005 storm, students shook their heads in disbelief as they saw foundations without houses, boarded-up businesses and neighborhoods resembling ghost towns. From the looks of things, it wasn’t hard to get the false impression that Katrina, which claimed more than 1,000 lives and displaced countless families, struck only weeks ago.
After the sobering tour, the group returned to Dillard University, their home for the week. Livingstone College and Dillard are member institutions of The United Negro College Fund.
On Thursday, the Livingstone contingent spent the day at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, which has been in existence since 2004, but officially opened in its own space downtown at the Riverwalk Marketplace a year ago. The group painted, sanded walls, erected triangular towers for exhibits and helped refurbish a bar from Bruning’s Restaurant, which opened in 1859 ó two decades before Livingstone was founded ó and has twice been underwater, during Hurricanes George in 1998 and Katrina.
Suffice it to say, the museum work was arduous.
Livingstone junior Steven Blaize, a computer information systems major from Brooklyn, N.Y., worked alongside Eldridge S. Williams, coordinator of community services, sanding and painting a door. Both men wiped sweat from their brows as they labored.
“I’m a person who likes to help others, so I think this is fun,” Blaize said, while scraping white paint.
Seniors Corinthia Flood and Kendra Jones worked together refurbishing the bar.
“We’re trying to scrape off a little bit of the dirt that accumulated when the bar was underwater,” said Flood, a business administration major from Los Angeles “It’s a really strong bar because it has been through two hurricanes. This bar and New Orleans are symbolic of survivors to me, because no matter what nature throws at them, they’re still standing.”
Liz Williams, president of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, couldn’t say enough about Livingstone.
“When we knew that it was going to be such a large group, we said we’re going to take advantage of that,” Williams said in an interview at the museum. “I can’t even begin to tell you how much this does for us. It’s wonderful. I plan to e-mail the students pictures of the finished product so they’ll know what they made happen.”
Dr. Stanley J. Elliott, vice president of student affairs, was the senior administrator on the trip, officially billed as the New Orleans Work Project. He was joined by the Rev. Darwin D. Little, campus minister; Carmen C. Wilder, director of alumni affairs/annual giving; the Rev. Troy D. Russell, admissions counselor/retention specialist; Eldridge Williams; and Terri L. Stevenson, director of student activities.
Williams said he was immensely proud of the students, particularly when they toiled in houses left ravaged by the storm.
“When we were working in houses with no air conditioning or running water, not to mention how hot it was, it would have been easy for the kids to just stop, but they didn’t,” Williams said. “In true Livingstone fashion, they kept working as hard as they could because they understood the importance of why we were there.”
Social worker Shereka Lewis benefited from Livingstone’s kindness when students painted her garage and mowed the grass on Friday. Livingstone alum Bishop Darryl B. Starnes Sr., of the Southwestern Delta Episcopal District, was instrumental in organizing the work at Lewis’ house.
While the trip was Jenkins’ brainchild, it was Stevenson who pulled it together.
“Through telephone calls and e-mails, I built relationships with people throughout the city of New Orleans, seeking meaningful opportunities for our diverse group of students,” Stevenson said. “It is experiences like this that will affect these young people for a lifetime. We want our students to be productive, caring and committed citizens, and we know this trip will encourage them to become more active socially, politically and environmentally.”
Of course, it wasn’t all work for the students. On Friday night, they went skating and out for pizza, and on Saturday, they volunteered at the ninth annual Satchmo SummerFest, one of New Orleans’ premier festivals.
They sold merchandise, manned the information booth, worked in the children’s area and conducted surveys for University of New Orleans officials. But they still had fun. While taking in the sights, they listened to jazz, shopped and snapped tons of pictures. And they enjoyed some of New Orleans’ culinary staples, including jambalaya, red beans and rice and shrimp, oysters and roast beef Po-Boys.
“The festival was full of history and culture and I’m thankful I was able to participate in it,” Student Government Association President Chad Mitchell said. “I didn’t know much about Louis Armstrong before the festival, but now I have a profound appreciation for his music and his legacy.”
Vance A. Vaucresson, a Morehouse College graduate and president and CEO of Vaucresson Sausage, was among the festival vendors.
“When you’re a graduate of an HBCU, you’re a little more sensitive to what’s going on with them,” Vaucresson said while cooking in the sweltering heat. “Livingstone College, even though it’s in North Carolina with your larger schools like A&T, has a great reputation. I’m glad to see the students come down here to participate in this type of endeavor because I think service is something that isn’t stressed enough at HBCU’s.”
It is at Livingstone, where students must complete 80 hours of community service before obtaining their degrees.
Other highlights of the New Orleans trip included lunch with Dr. Ruby L. Broadway, a Dillard University associate professor of biology and ’76 Livingstone alum; worship services at Tasker Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church in Ponchatoula, La., where they heard a fiery sermon; and receiving certificates of appreciation from James Gilmore Jr., director of Volunteer Louisiana, which falls under the purview of Lt. Gov. Mitchell J. Landrieu.
Undoubtedly, the students’ work will long be remembered ó and appreciated.
“The students helped a cultural institution, homeowners and then they gave of their time for one of the city’s major events,” said Romig of the Convention & Visitors Bureau. “There aren’t many organizations that come into town and give of themselves across so many spectrums, and it’s very inspiring as a local to see that. I don’t think the kids realize how many lives they’ve touched and how much of a difference their efforts have made, but hopefully when they look over their shoulder at the end of the trip they’ll be able to see it.”
Laurie Willis is assistant director of public relations at Livingstone College.