Wednesday, July 25, 2007

County students to help rebuild Big Easy

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Johnny Simon⁄Special to The Gazette
Suzanne Mintz and Jon Elkind with some of the teens traveling to New Orleans, front row, from left, Gautham Ragunathan of Gaithersburg, Leah Glass of Potomac and Leslie Adkins of Derwood; middle, Emily Dillon, and Mark Goodman of Silver Spring; back, Nick Warren, Jonathan Howard, Jonas Shaffer and Michael Harlen, all of Silver Spring.
‘‘Eerie” is how Jeffrey Michaels, 17, a Winston Churchill High School junior, describes the feeling he had when he and his friend Ben Elkind arrived in St. Bernard’s Parish last August to help gut homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

The former New Orleans suburb was no longer a neighborhood; it was a ghost town, he says. The people were gone, but their suffering was literally written on the walls of the abandoned homes. Each house had a long list of the damages, number of casualties, biohazards and work needed written on its front. Reading the lists, and realizing what people had gone through, was a very emotional experience, he says.

One day, while Michaels was gutting a house, a woman who had come back to check on her home began talking to him.

‘‘She showed me where she had to crawl out of the window on the top floor of her house to wait for the rescuers. It was very emotional. Talking to those families, and the woman next door, I was happy to be part of it [rebuilding] and glad to be able to say I took part in such a monumental change in someone else’s life,” he says. ‘‘I’ll be telling my grandchildren about this.”

Despite the hard work involved in knocking down walls in 90-degree heat and equal amounts of humidity, both Michaels and Elkind, 17, refer to their experience with ACORN’s Adopt-a-Home program in New Orleans with adjectives like ‘‘wonderful” and ‘‘monumental.”

Next month, 20 students from Wheaton, Rockville, Northwood, Churchill and Richard Montgomery high schools will be able to have the same experience when the group returns to St. Bernard’s Parish to work side-by-side with ACORN, Habitat for Humanity and the families themselves to rebuild three homes.

This year’s trip was the brainchild of Elkind, a Silver Spring teen who attends Richard Montgomery. After seeing what he and Michaels accomplished last year, Elkind thought other students might like a chance to participate in the cleanup. So he began organizing another trip to New Orleans and opened it to anyone who wanted to volunteer and could pay the $600 for airfare and accommodations. Elkind says he thought he would get five students to volunteer; he got 20. Using Facebook, the Honor Society, his club affiliations and his network of friends, Elkind recruited students from Wheaton, Rockville, Northwood, Churchill and Blair high schools.

To keep the cost at $600 each, the group has to raise $7,200, and with three weeks to go, they are $500 short of that goal. Elkind’s mother, Suzanne Mintz, whose company M.E. Jewelry is also donating to the program, says she believes the group will reach its goal. The students have given so much already, she says, pointing to a check from student Ann Bullock who, when she learned she made a bit more money than expected from her job at NIH, donated the extra $150. The students also have held a number of fundraisers from concerts at Temple Shalom to a bake sale run by seniors Emily Dillon and Kaitlin Smith that added $450 to the coffers.

Parents have been very supportive, Mintz says, listing donations of materials, money, transportation, and even an offer to reimburse the students for the drinking water the group will need to bring to the site each day.

With the immediate financial goal in sight, the students have turned their efforts to a second goal: raising another $5,000 to donate to St. Bernard’s program to buy lumber, drywall and other materials to use in rebuilding three homes. Elkins worries they may not be able to raise the money with so little time left.

Regardless, spending five days working side-by-side with the three families to rebuild their homes by hanging drywall, mudding, painting and installing plumbing will be a really powerful experience, Mintz says. It will put a face on the work; it won’t just be some building they are working on, she adds.

Just as critical, Mintz says, is how this experience will influence the students’ future decisions.

‘‘I want to do a reflection with them and ask the important questions: What did we do? What does this mean? And what are we going to do with this experience once we leave this place?” she says,

‘‘Learning something in the process of helping others is, after all, is the true meaning of service learning.”

Contributions, made payable to the St. Bernard Project, can be mailed to: Suzanne Mintz, 415 Ellsworth Drive, Silver Spring, MD 20910.