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 New Orleans Service Trip

Students Give Back: UMD Spring Break Trip

UMD Spring Break Trip to New Orleans

Demolition, cleaning, and painting replaced sunbathing on the beach for three vans full of UMD students during Spring Break 2007. A group made up of students and staff from Duluth traveled to New Orleans for a Spring Break service trip. The group of 44 was comprised of students from UMD, the College of St. Scholastica, Lake Superior College, and the University of Wisconsin-Superior, and members of the greater Duluth community. Each raised $300 to cover the costs of transportation, food, and lodging. Organized by Monte Gomke, a staff member in UMD's Housing Services and assisted by local pastor Richard Blood, the trip was sponsored organized by UMD the Diversity Commission and United Campus Ministries of UMD. The group drove for 28 hours straight, worked for five days, and then drove back to Duluth.

The task was to reconstruct homes in areas of New Orleans ravaged by the hurricanes. The UMD efforts were was in partnership with the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance project. FEMA numbers indicate that over 150,000 homes were damaged in New Orleans alone.

Most members didn't know each other before the trip began. "We got to know each other really well on the trip, though," said Jennifer Smith. They stayed in tent "pods" (portable shelters) in a volunteer camp churchyard called The Fish Camp, in Luling, LA. "I couldn't get used to the cold showers," she said. "I developed a new level of grunge."

The week before they left, the group was trained in drywall technique at Home Depot. While in New Orleans, the group ate breakfast, packed lunch and then went off to their sites to gut homes down to the studs, put up drywall, or paint. On Wednesday afternoon, the group toured New Orlean's Ninth Ward, the area hardest hit when the levy broke and the storm surge flooded the city.

Their days weren't easy. "We had cuts, bruises, spider bites, rashes, dirt, grime, black mold in our lungs, dust, splinters, and black sludge," said UMD student Erik Lund. "But we carried on... never wishing we had spent the week in Cancun instead." See more of Erik's comments below. Some group members are interested in returning to New Orleans for Spring Break 2008. For more info, contact Rich Church (218-729-8445, or Monte Gomke (218-726-8170, Photos for this story provided by Erik Lund, Jennifer Smith and Emily Ojanen.


The destruction in the city is evident 18 months after Hurricane Katrina

The French Quarter and business district are basically intact, while blocks away residences were destroyed. An untouched home. A church in the Ninth Ward was pulled from its foundation. An unclaimed boat remains in a homeowner's yard, only blocks from where the one of the levees broke.

Some of the families who were assisted by the UMD group

The UMD group helped this family reconstruct their home's interior. Katie Gothner, Elisa Telander, and Amanda Taylor with homeowner Delories Carter. Delories Carter goes through her belongings deciding what to keep and what to let go.

On the sites

Nicole Soderhold tears up tile for a homeowner whose house had seven feet of standing water. Kyle Mernitz measures a wall to install sheetrock. Kirk Gednalske and trip organizer Monte Gomke haul out a fridge that hadn't been opened since the storm. Lana Peterson and Jill Lemke replace walls that had too much water damage to be repaired.
Ruth Rutford and Alex Clark Erin Blood and Erik Lund Zach Wight and Kirk Gednalske
Zach Wight Jen Roiger wears a t-shirt that announces "Out of Chaos, Hope." Monke Gomke and Maya Blickenstaff
The Fish Camp in Luling, LA was their home for a week. Zach Wight takes a stroll among the rubble.



Video taken by UMD student Andrew Volkart who received a guided tour of destruction from a New Orleans native
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Lake Pontchartrain YouTube 4
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Guide shows her sisters house, then on to the 17th St. Canal
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Erik Lund Writes About the UMD Trip to New Orleans

I felt a sinking feeling in my gut the first time I witnessed just a sliver of the devastation I was going to be engulfed in every waking moment for the next week.

It’s hard for me to communicate to a friend back home how incredibly humbling it is to look down the block in both directions, hell in every direction, no matter which road you’re on, and see a ghost-town. A fraction of the people, just a fraction of the beautiful, friendly, warm, caring, welcoming people of New Orleans, have returned to their homes. About one in every five houses is occupied. And these are the lovely, amazing people of New Orleans. It’s almost impossible to illustrate how incredible the residents of this unbelievable city are.

I’ve traveled quite a bit around the U.S. I have never in my entire life felt more welcomed, appreciated, loved, SAFE or respected than I felt in the former “Murder Capitol of the U.S.” The media has skewed this one. I mean sure, there are isolated cases among isolated “troublemakers” that seem to give the city a bad name, but there are isolated cases among isolated people in every city across the world. Another thing I’ve learned from this trip, and want to emphasize it, is that there is no such thing as a “bad neighborhood.” There are only “bad people” in neighborhoods, and they are few and far between in New Orleans.

The house my group worked on was in Jefferson Parish, which some might deem a rough part of town. I walked alone, with a few other people, or as a group, down countless blocks, and talked to everyone in sight. The only time I got an unfriendly reaction was when I was wearing the FEMA shirt I picked up on Bourbon Street. The woman I greeted mistakenly thought I actually worked for FEMA. I cleared that up with her quickly, and told her that I work with a different group, one that was here to help! FEMA is New Orleans’ new four-letter “f” word. There is a feeling among the residents I talked to that they were abandoned by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), and that much more should have been done, and quicker.

We arrived into town on Sunday after a grueling 28-hour drive. Forty-four of us were packed into three vans, with an additional van just for cargo. During orientation at Fish Camp, the group leader for Presbyterian Disaster Association (the UMD group had come down as a non-denominational part of PDA) told us to wear the blue PDA shirts everywhere. She couldn’t have been more right. We were “rock-stars” of sorts, although none of us were looking for recognition. We were just simply doing what we all felt in our hearts we needed to do. Everywhere we went we were thanked for our efforts.

One day during lunch, a few of us were tired of the sandwiches we made every morning, and decided to drive over to Popeye’s Chicken, which wasn’t far from our work site. Before we could even get in the door, a lady in the drive-thru leaned out her window and said, “Hey are you here to help?” She handed us a $20 bill that nearly paid for our entire meal. That was a monetary gift for our efforts, but no amount of money could ever compare to the ecstatic feeling of actually making a difference.

Every one of us in the U.S. has watched some sort of news coverage of the Hurricane Katrina debacle, and most of us have said or thought to ourselves, ‘Now ain’t that a shame, those poor people.’ Not everyone can spare the time, and the money to come down for a week, like we were privileged to do, I understand that. But I, for one, was sick and tired of hearing about all the crummy things happening in the world, and sitting in Duluth feeling like even if I tried I couldn’t possible make a dent.

Well, I can tell you as I sit at my desk typing this, preparing to jump back into the swing of things, knowing I’m behind on several assignments, that I DID MAKE A DIFFERENCE. I saw it when I looked into Delories Carter’s eyes. She was the owner of the home we worked on. She watched us as we carried out all of her personal items, the only things she had left in this world. Her home, her neighborhood, and her cousin’s life had been swept away in the storm. I watched her sort through her things and try to let go of her possessions. I saw her watch the impersonal construction workers dump her things into the garbage truck. She smiled through it all. What a brave woman she is. She is a lovely, enlightening person, full of life. I can honestly say that if we, as PDA workers, as UMD students, hadn’t been there to laugh with her, to hear her story, to pack her an extra sandwich, chips, and her favorite Coca-Cola, to watch her stuff being carted away, it would have been that much harder for her. We weren’t simply guys in hard hats and orange vests. We provided a face to the cleanup and rebuilding effort for Delories.

Undoubtedly, we weren’t the most fit for the job. In fact none of us knew what the hell we were doing most of the time. Most of us had never done anything like this before. In fact, I’m pretty sure that week was the hardest most of us had ever worked. We were drenched in sweat from the moment we started working at 9 am until we stepped out of the shower back at camp, somewhere between 4 and 6 pm. We had cuts bruises, spider bites, rashes, dirt, grime, black mold in our lungs, dust, splinters and black sludge (from a refrigerator that hadn’t been opened since the storm a year and a half ago) littering our bodies, but we carried on. We never faltered and never wished we had spent the week in Cancun instead. No doubt there were hardships and mental breakdowns among our group, but would anyone expect otherwise?

Above anything else, Delories provided us with a face to the tragedy. We will no longer be able to hear about Katrina and be indifferent to it. We were there, we know people that lost their homes, we grieved with them, we smiled with them, we listened to their stories. We came in contact with the poor, the underprivileged, the people accused of “looting” after the storm, of supposedly grabbing plasma TV’s they would have no logical use for. The people we met are the heart and soul of New Orleans and if they were “looting” they were grabbing bread, meat and cheese to feed their families.

There were the exceptions. I was told the story of a guy wading through waist deep water trying to sell a pair of Adidas to Delories’ neighbor, who yelped back, “What the hell am I gonna do with a pair of sneakers man, you got a boat?”

There are people sitting comfortably in their suburban homes all across the country who ask why they don’t the New Orleanians just cut their losses and rebuild somewhere else – why keep rebuilding a city that’s under sea level to begin with? I’ll tell you my answer to that question. It’s less about the place and more about the people. So I ask all of you to do something about the tragedies you hear about in the news. We’re all idealistic; we all wish the world would change. Well change doesn’t happen, my friends, without a people who want to help. It doesn’t happen without a band of kids, most of whom were strangers, but came back to Minnesota with forty new friends they had connected with in Louisiana. I urge you to stand up for something you believe in and help out, even a five-dollar check to a relief organization can help (five dollars would buy Delories lunch for a day). New Orleans has changed my life, how I interact with people, and how I view suffering. By Erick Lund.

Link to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance:

— web page written by Cheryl Reitan with assistance from Communication Intern Jenna Hagen

UMD Homepage 2007

UMD home page editor, Cheryl Reitan,
NEW RELEASES, UMD media contact, Susan Latto,, 218-726-8830


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