SDSU students spend break helping victims

by Bill Crotty

Spring break means beaches and parties for many students, but this trip was of a more benevolent nature, Courtesy of Erica Feinman
Spring break means beaches and parties for many students, but this trip was of a more benevolent nature, Courtesy of Erica Feinman

Spring break is a time when many students spend large sums of money on exotic vacation trips to Cancun, Mexico or gambling and drinking it away in Las Vegas. But one group at San Diego State decided to spend its break doing disaster relief in New Orleans instead.

Hillel, a Jewish college campus organization, planned an “Alternative Spring Break” for 13 students, which gave them the opportunity to practice the tradition of Tikkun Olam (meaning “repairing the world”), and have some fun at the same time.

“I loved the trip,” international security and conflict resolution junior Ben Ulrey said. “I had heard the story, and now I could do something about it.”

Ulrey, along with the 12 other students who went on the trip, spent several days helping rebuild a home that had been damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

“We felt like construction workers, getting up at 6:30 a.m. every day, working until 4 p.m.,” ISCOR senior Michelle Golan said. “We worked on the house for the first four days of the trip, with everyone working on different projects, from laying floor to cutting tiles.”

Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 and ravaged the city after levee failures. Because of the time that has lapsed, some may forget that reconstruction of many areas damaged by Katrina is still under way.

“I saw it as, they still needed our help – not as, ‘it was six years ago,’” liberal studies sophomore Julia Gorin said.

Gorin was very excited to be involved and liked the trip because of the difference the group made, rather than the traditional spring break where most people “just party.”

To Ulrey, the best part of the trip was learning the history and hearing the story of Katrina from people who lived through the 2005 disaster.

“One guy we talked to was having a barbecue when the hurricane hit,” Ulrey said. “He said that the worst thing the U.S. did was ‘call us refugees,’ and that he felt like the government had failed them.”

Ulrey was also interested in the effects the disaster had on people of different economic statuses.

“Race didn’t matter,” he said. “Everyone was in the same situation during the disaster, but as soon as recovery started, the same problems came back.”

“We talked to a wide variety of people,” child family development senior Roxanne Brodsky said. “Whether they were wealthy and had a brand new house or not, they all had really similar things to say.

“At the end of the day, they were all human beings and (were reduced) to having nothing at one point,” she said.

Brodsky said she would absolutely go again if the trip were to be repeated in the future, and that because of the trip and exposure to AmeriCorps, she is considering going back to New Orleans during the summer to continue working.

Despite spending most of their day working, the students had plenty of time to experience the nightlife of New Orleans as well.

“It was a little bit of work, and a little bit of play,” Golan said. “We had several programs in the evenings where we talked about the experience we were having and how it was affecting us.”

Brodsky said she loved listening to all of the different jazz bands.

“There were jazz clubs all over on the streets, and we got to see many of them,” she said. “In the evenings, we basically got to do the touristy thing.”

Everyone in the group said they were happy with the trip and that the experience was rewarding, especially the firsthand accounts from people they met.

Courtesy of Erica Feinman
Courtesy of Erica Feinman

“To say I was happy with the trip is an understatement,” Golan said. “It was an eye-opening trip. I love to do community service work, but this was something new to me.”

This was not the first alternative spring break trip that Hillel has organized for SDSU students. According to Erica Feinman, the SDSU Hillel Lipinsky Engagement associate who arranged the trip, it will not be the last.

“The students really loved the trip, so we are definitely going to do it again next year,” Feinman said.