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Making a Difference:
Community Service in New Orleans  Changes Student’s Outlook

By Shannon Dulaney | April 10, 2006

Editor’s Note: More than 100 UCSD students traded a traditional spring break experience for long hours of community service here and abroad. This is one student’s account of volunteering in post-Katrina New Orleans

Interested in learning about other alternative spring break experiences?
Read about trips to Brazil, Costa Rica and elsewhere in our March 27th issue.

When college students hear the term “Alternative Spring Break,” most of them know what that means: instead of going to Rosarito or Cabo San Lucas to party, you go to various places around the world…to serve.  What is not immediately understood is the reality that the trip will change you just as much, if not more, than the community you have gone to help.  I am one of the lucky students who was changed by my experience in New Orleans over spring break.

Because I was the logistics coordinator for the trip, there was a lot of (nervous) anticipation on my part throughout winter quarter.  It was a huge undertaking—even though Common Ground, the group we volunteered with, provides its volunteers with food and housing, transportation posed a huge challenge, especially with 32 people going.  Despite the stress, I felt that I was in the right place at the right time, and I knew that this was an experience that would change me in a phenomenal way.

Photo
UCSD student Shannon Dulaney (left) with a fellow student, sitting on a devastated street in New Orleans.

That feeling of being in the right place at the right time continued, from the second we got to the Common Ground site and throughout the entire trip.  This experience was an emotional rollercoaster: I felt empowered and helpless; elated and crushed; angry and at peace; confident and confused.  But most of all I felt an overwhelming sense of compassion and love for both the city itself and its residents.  Since being back in San Diego, I have felt myself missing the music of the city, the bond that I shared with the other workers at Common Ground, and most of all the response I received from the residents of New Orleans.  In Southern California, we are used to being in our cars, removed from everyone else, and you can literally go through your whole day without talking to anyone.  But in New Orleans, you walk down the street, and people wave and smile and ask how you’re doing, and when they find out that you are a volunteer, they are sincere in their appreciation and gratitude for what you are doing.

On my last day in New Orleans, I was walking to a church in the French Quarter to go to a rally, and I was stopped by a television producer who wanted to use me in a TV show she was shooting the next day.  I told her that I couldn’t; that I was flying out early that morning to go back home.  She asked me why I was in town, and I said that I had been volunteering with Common Ground for the week.  Her eyes immediately welled up with tears, and she said that she was so grateful that we were here.  Of course I started crying too, but just having that connection with her made me realize that even if what we are doing is small in comparison to what has to be done, our presence alone is important to the people of New Orleans, to remind them that they are not forgotten.

One of the most important things I learned on this trip was the difference between solidarity and charity.  Common Ground’s slogan is “Solidarity Not Charity,” and they talk about that concept a lot, from the orientation session to everyday conversation.  Although the idea immediately resonated with me, it took me the week to realize why.  I want to be able to go back to New Orleans in five or ten years and see that the community of the 9th Ward has reclaimed their homes and their lives, and that will only happen if volunteer groups like Common Ground are working with them in solidarity, not for them in charity.  Solidarity means not only gutting houses, but working alongside the homeowners, gutting together.  Solidarity means not just going to a rally to save a church, but singing and dancing with the community, rallying together.

I feel blessed to have been apart of this trip, and to have seen the passion of the community and the volunteers.  Ultimately, that is what brought us together and made us one big community: our passion to see the city of New Orleans rebuilt in a way that honors its historical roots, not covers them up.  Even though I was only there for a week, I will always be proud to be a member of the New Orleans community.

Shannon Dulaney is chair of UCSD’s chapter of  the Calfornia Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) and the New Orleans Trip Logistics Coordinator. She is a second year student at Marshall College, where she is majoring in international relations.

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