The Impact of Alternative Spring Break

“Part of what makes Alternative Breaks so special is getting to experience what home is for others, creating a home and a family for your participants, and then coming to New Orleans and building homes for others.” – Cady Trvalik, George Washington University

Alternative spring breaks are learning experiences. Many students volunteer without any construction experience, learning on site how to swing a hammer, measure and cut a board, or put up trusses. More importantly, many students learn on site about the importance of affordable housing. In New Orleans, the need for affordable housing goes back well before Hurricane Katrina. The storm exacerbated the problems local, hardworking families already faced in finding a decent, safe place to live: Since 2005, home prices have soared 46% and rental rates have increased by 31%. These numbers tell the story of why building affordable housing is important, but it’s only when students volunteer alongside the families who are working toward owning a home that those numbers become real. Alternative spring break for 2017 will bring over 1600 students to NOAHH’s build sites. That’s over 1600 people taking our mission to heart.

In every community, there is a need for affordable housing. These students come from around the country, from Canada, and, this year, also from Paris. When they leave New Orleans, they will carry our mission with them to their own communities, in New Jersey, in DC, in Missouri, California, and Maine, in Washington, Iowa, and Georgia. Our mission is sinking in locally as well. Students in Louisiana make up 29% of this year’s spring break volunteers, most of them from the New Orleans area. Many of these are students from Xavier, Tulane, and Loyola, three major universities in the city, or from local high schools like Mt. Carmel Academy or the McGehee School. These students are giving back directly to their communities, often through service learning projects or community service requirements from their schools, which combine their volunteer experiences with what they learn in the classroom.

“Seeing the devastation that Hurricane Katrina caused and the families that were in need prompted us to take action and to help others rebuild their lives and homes.” – Jamie Poulin, UCDSB Schools

After local volunteers, the biggest percentage of student volunteers comes from New York. Students joining NOAHH from eight different New York schools will make up 12% of the 2017 spring break volunteers. Canadian schools have been a constant presence during spring break since 2006. Concordia University, Western University, and UCDSB Schools are all returning this year, and Queen’s University will be joining NOAHH for the first time. In total, about 8% of all spring break volunteers this year will be Canadian. Just two student groups–Boston College and longtime partners InterVarsity New England–mean Massachusetts makes up another 8% of this spring’s student volunteers.

Many school groups first chose to volunteer in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina brought a national spotlight to the need for affordable housing and rebuilding efforts in the city. Many of those schools returned the following year, then the year after, and now several groups have made annual trips for 12 years. Widener University is one of NOAHH’s longest running partners. According to them, it’s more than merely the need for housing that brings them back–it’s the city itself.

“Our university keeps sending volunteer groups back to New Orleans because our students enjoy the welcoming and friendly atmosphere of the city,” said Gabriela Faux of Widener. “We also keep sending groups down because we are aware that even years after Hurricane Katrina, a lot of work still needs to be done. Our students enjoy volunteering with New Orleans Habitat because they see the impact they are making on the community as well as recognize the impact the community has on them personally.”

The impact student volunteers have is enormous. This year, they will complete, between February and May, over 44,000 hours of home-building (over 5 straight years’ worth of work for a single individual), completing 12 homes and starting 8 more. In total, they will work on 20 homes, or nearly two-thirds of NOAHH’s annual home construction. The generous spirit of these students who choose to spend their breaks doing construction work makes what we do each year possible.

“I came on this trip as a participant in January 2015, not sure what to expect. However, in experiencing New Orleans and hearing about the story of what had happened during and in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I was blown away. Our visit to The Living Museum in the Lower Ninth Ward was especially powerful. We’re really excited to visit the French Quarter and eat beignets, but this year we are also hoping to experience some music and nature as well! We’re planning to visit Jean Lafitte Park.” – Cady Trvalik, George Washington University

NOAHH has recently begun focusing on building more in the Lower Ninth Ward, a part of the city that was severely impacted by the flooding after Hurricane Katrina. The Lower Ninth has been an important part of New Orleans’s history, home to figures like Fats Domino (to name perhaps the most widely known example) and others who have made the culture of New Orleans unique and celebrated around the world. The neighborhood’s high homeownership rates have been a part of its enduring culture, and as students help build new homes there, they contribute to preserving that culture by helping provide the stability and continuity essential to thriving communities.

One benefit of volunteering with NOAHH on spring break is being able to enjoy the city’s most famous attractions after building homes all day. These experiences would be impossible without the work of New Orleans service industry professionals. Because many of these jobs come with lower wages, finding affordable housing can be especially difficult for waiters (median income in New Orleans: $28,000), line cooks (median income in New Orleans: $28,000), housekeepers (median income in New Orleans: $24,000), tour guides (median income in New Orleans: $24,000), and others who make the students’ recreational experiences possible. Over 21% of NOAHH’s partner families work in the service industry, more than from any other industry, and 12 % of partner families are musicians. Students not only come to New Orleans to enjoy the music, food, and more, but they also help make it possible for those things to thrive by working on housing that will continue to make the Lower Ninth Ward (and other parts of the city) a place where culture-bearers and service industry employees can live affordably.

“Besides volunteering, our group is very eager to explore a new place and learn about the culture and history of the city,” said Gabriela. “Our group also looks forward to trying new foods (like alligator or gumbo) and hopefully taking a swamp tour. Every year, our groups fall in love with the Rock ‘n’ Bowl experience as well.”

One of the biggest benefits of returning year after year is that returning students can see the impact they had the year before. On a larger scale, students can see what progress the city has made (and the continued need), but individually, they can see that the homes they worked on are now complete, with the partner families they worked alongside now living in them. Students played a major role in building Musicians’ Village, in our work Rebuilding America Street (and more will help there this year, too), and on build sites throughout the city. As they return year after year, they are able to see not just the work they did on their trips, but the ongoing impact of spring break volunteers as more homes are built and communities return.

“We hope to tour the homes we previously worked on and see the finished product,” said Jamie. “We also want to tour the French Quarter.”

“RHINO made it easy to make arrangements for our trip and offered great recommendations. This collaboration has been a great success… We are grateful we were introduced to RHINO because it truly helped us plan and organize the best trip possible, while also granting us much needed financial support for our students.” – Wendy McCreary, Hillel of San Diego, CSU San Marcos

What makes the impact of all volunteers truly last is the bond they form with partner families, local organizations, and the city itself. While students from all over are connecting with the future homeowners with whom they are building and with the people and places, the sights and sounds, of New Orleans, some also connect with other local organizations. RHINO has been a partner of NOAHH since just after Hurricane Katrina. They provide accommodations and support for volunteer groups around the country who come to serve in New Orleans, through NOAHH and other organizations. The Hillel organizations at California schools CSU San Marcos and Chapman University both reached out to NOAHH for local guidance, and NOAHH helped them connect with RHINO. When they arrive, they also hope to connect with other local organizations:

“We knew there was a need in the community,” said Wendy McCreary of Hillel of San Diego, CSU San Marcos, “and New Orleans is an amazing city with so much history, that we knew students would be able to give back during the day, and have an amazing experience exploring the city after the work day is done. [The students] are excited to try beignets at Cafe Du Monde and hear the sounds of jazz from every corner. They want to visit Bourbon Street and enjoy southern-style food. We are also excited to visit Tulane Hillel and learn about some of the Jewish history of the area.”

“‘Home’ means being with the people I love and feel most comfortable around. Home for me has never meant an actual structure; it has always represented where my heart is. Home is wherever my family and friends are because they are the ones who hold my heart.” – Gabriela Faux, Widener University

Whether they come from Florida or Ohio, Pennsylvania or Paris, with a background in affordable housing or completely unaware of the great need in our communities, students will find something to learn as they experience New Orleans and volunteering first-hand. It’s our hope that students will be moved by their experiences not just to grow and change their own lives, but to become advocates and supporters of affordable housing here and in their own communities, with a real understanding that to support affordable housing is to support empowering families and individuals to find financial stability and to increase their impact on their own communities.

“Home means a roof over your head where you feel safe, secure, and where your family is. A house is just a building until a family moves in and makes it their own safe, warm, inviting space.” – Wendy McCreary, Hillel of San Diego, CSU San Marcos