Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Teens take a trip to New Orleans to rebuild

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Photo courtesy of Ben Elkind
A group of teens, along with their adult chaperones, recently returned from a trip to New Orleans to help repair homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina. From left are Jonathon Elkind, Ben Elkind, Jonas Shaffer, Emily Herman, Michael Harlen and Kealan Hobelmann.
Silver Spring resident Suzanne Mintz is a New Orleans expatriate. So naturally, her 16-year-old son Ben Elkind visited New Orleans often while growing up. And when Hurricane Katrina hit two years ago, he was devastated.

Last year, after he and his mother went on a volunteer trip, Elkind decided to bring other teenagers from his area to help rebuild the city.

‘‘I felt a responsibility a duty to the people who love New Orleans,” Elkind said.

Seeking fellow teen volunteers through the area’s National Honor Societies and making pitches to all his classes at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Elkind was able to recruit 20 teenagers from five local high schools.

‘‘The great thing was that they all were motivated to help the New Orleans community during their summer break,” Elkind said. ‘‘We all understood that this is a massive effort and we were just a small piece of that.”

From Aug. 4-11, the teenagers, who came from Wheaton, Richard Montgomery, Northwood, Blair and Rockville high schools, worked 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. with the St. Bernard’s Project to rebuild destroyed homes, along with painting, sanding and dry walling.

Though each student was required to pay $600 for the trip, the youths also raised funds through individual donors, holding a yard sale and lobbying organizations like People’s Supply in Hyattsville.

But the biggest fundraiser was a benefit concert held in June at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase. The youths organized the event in a week, bringing together local bands and coming up with about $1,000 for the trip.

‘‘We felt really good about the concert,” said 17-year-old Emily Herman, a senior at Northwood High School in Silver Spring. ‘‘It was a little hectic, but everyone was incredibly generous with their time and money.”

However, it wasn’t all work and no play for the group, which was chaperoned by Mintz.

‘‘It was an unbelievable experience,” Mintz said. ‘‘We wanted them to appreciate all the city had to offer, so they did fun stuff and also met with officials and did the dirty, sweaty work.”

The teens had loads of fun and bonding, gathering every night after working at the pool to sing songs and tell jokes.

‘‘We had such a great group dynamic,” Elkind said. ‘‘There was a general consensus that it went fantastically and that people got a lot from being in that experience.”

The group also set apart some time to learn about how the New Orleans community was affected by the hurricane in ways that were less visible, like visiting Tulane University to talk to other public service volunteers as well as meeting other youths from Ireland who came to help restore the city.

But of all the outside activities, the teenagers learned most from meeting with Ben Marcovitch, a former Silver Spring resident who now resides in New Orleans as an assistant principal at a math and science charter school.

‘‘We learned about the state of education in the city after the hurricane and the interplay between racial and socioeconomic factors,” Elkind said. ‘‘Everyone (in the group) got a lot from that, especially because Ben was such a young teacher.”

After the experience, the group plans on coming back to repeat the project during their next winter or spring break to take the restoration of the city into their own hands.

‘‘The way that the government has inadequately provided for the citizens (in New Orleans) is disappointing,” Elkind said. ‘‘It’s unfortunate that high school students have to come down and fix things.”