Thirty of us piled onto the plane – everyone chatting and yelling in their matching sweatshirts – but other passengers only seemed to care about our pillows.
“Why do you all have pillows?” an older, balding man asked.
Then, a short woman with just the slightest Boston accent said, “There’s got to be a story behind all these pillows.”
We shared a glance and laughed uncomfortably. Someone finally decided we had to explain and offered the rough equivalent of: “Oh, we don’t have any bedding where we’re going, so we had to bring our own.”
This was, of course, followed by more questions and soon half the plane learned about the college students off to build houses for a week in New Orleans for their spring break.
This year, FSU’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program volunteered with the United Saint’s Recovery Project (USRP) in Central City, New Orleans. ASB is a program that gives students the opportunity to do a service-based trip at a low cost instead of going on a vacation or just hanging around the house for the week.
USRP was founded by Minnesota native Daryl Kiesow in September 2007. Kiesow went to New Orleans in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, seeing it as a chance to change up his life and truly make a difference. He volunteered with another organization for two years before starting his own.
USRP is a volunteer-based program that works to restore homes in New Orleans damaged by natural disasters. It runs out of a church, with two apartment buildings near by to house volunteers.
During the typical work week, breakfast starts at 6 a.m. each day, before the sun has even risen. If you want coffee – which most everyone does – you wake up around 5:45, pull on whatever clothes you don’t mind ruining, and walk across the street to the church before the pot runs dry.
All the volunteers sit around two long tables in a side room, eating cold bagels and cereal for breakfast, their brown bag lunches sitting beside them.
At 7 a.m., Kiesow goes to the white board at the front of the room and gets everyone’s attention. He asks each group to share about the previous day’s work before divvying up the schools for the new work day. Volunteers are mostly sent out in groups of six to 12, depending on the need.
During the week we were there, volunteers worked roofing a house damaged in the recent tornadoes, restoring a home damaged during the floods in Baton Rouge this past summer and sorting Mardi Gras beads with the Arc of Greater New Orleans non-profit, among other projects.
While all the volunteer groups were switched up and cycled through a number of job sites throughout the week, Framingham was able to have a presence at Caryl Eager’s house each day.
Eager lost her home 12 years ago, during Hurricane Katrina. The storm itself didn’t wash the house away, but during the three months that the National Guard kept people from their homes, mold from the dampness snuck up the walls to the attic and made the house uninhabitable.
Eager, who is in her 70s, hired multiple contractors to fix her home, eating up much of her relief money. Unfortunately, she was the victim of contractor fraud. They took her money, looked at the house, maybe started a wall here or there, then left.
With her home in such a state, Eager has had to live with a woman from her church since the storm.
The USRP rebuilding project at Eager’s house was led by a man named Brian McGinnis. He’d direct us toward a task – putting up a wall, using a power drill, sanding, mudding – and then leave us to it without much guidance. He seemed to believe we were all incredibly capable, though most of us had little-to-no experience when it came to building a house.
On our first day at Eager’s house, only the back few rooms had been fully hung with drywall. Most of the rooms were just frames, allowing us to see clear across the house.
More than half the walls needed to be measured out and put up, plaster needed to applied to the screw holes and the seams between boards and rough spots needed to be sanded before they could be painted over.
Sophomore Shannon Fitzgerald, who worked at Eager’s house for three days, was tasked with building a closet, though she had never used a power drill until that week.
“When I was building the closet, the screws were at weird angles, and I couldn’t get them all the way in, and I was yelling swears because I was so frustrated. After I was finished, I asked Destinee and she told me that Caryl was in the room the whole time I swearing. I felt so bad,” Fitzgerald said.
Eager was around each day as we worked, talking with us and playfully bickering with McGinnis.
During lunch on our first day, where she offered everyone snacks and sodas, she told us about the homeless people she has met around the city and how she hopes to open her home to at least some of them when it is complete.
Junior Seth Signa, who worked at Eager’s house for two days, said, “This woman had lost just about everything – she has not been able to live in her home for 12 years. She has faced so much hardship, and here she is with nothing but smiles and laughter and good vibes. It was so inspiring.”
Signa was amazed at how much work FSU students were able to accomplish.
“I was lucky to go on the first work day, and when we walked into her house not much was done. … But in that short week, thanks to all of us just working together and really putting in 110 percent, we got most of the downstairs finished,” he said.
“It didn’t totally hit me until the end, when we did a final walk through, and I was just in awe. I had to wipe a few tears away, to tell you the truth,” he added.
Junior Emily Robinson, who helped to construct the walls in Caryl’s future kitchen, was amazed by the tangible difference we made.
She said, “On our last day at Caryl’s, we walked from the very back of the house to the front and I couldn’t help but be blown away by everything we did. She had walls again, and we were able to do that for her.”
The work put in by FSU volunteers actually speeded up the expected completion date for Eager’s house by weeks, even months, according to USRP staff.
The pace of our work probably had more to do with the group’s collective humor and motivation than any excess of skill. Every day, Eager’s house was bursting with singing, laughter and music from the trip playlist.
“I went to New Orleans with few expectations and came home with a new family,” said Robinson.
“Working in Caryl’s house was unlike anything I have experienced before – everyone was so helpful,” she added. “That was just the group we were with, everyone was kind and selfless.”
The trip wasn’t all work and no play, however. We were able to visit the French quarter, enjoy gumbo and even get beignets at the famous Café Du Monde.
Each night, the group got together for a debriefing where anyone could share their thoughts on the day and voice questions. Afterwards, those who hadn’t passed out from exhaustion would stay up chatting and dancing.
On the last day of our trip, as we were driving through New Orleans for the last time, Eager sent an email to senior Lauren LaFlemme, thanking everyone for our work and inviting us to stay with her in New Orleans.
“I’ve grown so close to you all,” she wrote. “You’re all like the grandkids I never had. You are wonderful souls! You sacrificed so much to come down to help me – someone you didn’t even know! God blessed me when He sent you to me.”
In another email following the trip, Eager continued to express her gratitude. “Not only did you wonderful volunteers help me with my house, but you helped heal my heart and my mind. Just having you guys working with me at my house made me feel that someone really cared, and that was the best help of all!”
The trip gave sophomore Hailey Small a new perspective. She works in the McAuliffe Center for Integrated Science Learning on campus and shows hurricane videos as part of a mock space mission.
Small said after working with Caryl, the videos have new meaning to her.
“I knew someone whose house was hit by the waves in the video and saw the weather report I watched and knew it was coming for them,” she said.
Signa hopes other Framingham State students will get involved in service opportunities like ASB. “There is no better feeling than being able to help another human being for no other reason other than that you can, and that it is the right thing to do.”
[Editors note: Emily Robinson is a member of The Gatepost editorial staff.]