New Orleans, A Different Kind of Spring Break

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In college, my most memorable Spring Break vacation was the time my aunt invited a friend and me to visit her in California. I probably have yet to mention this, so I will take this opportunity to let you in on a pretty well-known secret: before London, before Paris, and even before New York, there was California. Los Angeles to be exact. When I was a really young girl, L.A. was my dream destination. I wanted to live among the beautiful people, walking the sun-drenched beaches day in and day out. So when the opportunity came for me to take my first trip there, I jumped at it. While in California, we visited San Diego, L.A. (with a stop at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, of course), and Culver City, where I had an interview for a summer internship at Sony Pictures (I still can’t believe I had the opportunity to do this!). To top it all off, my aunt was nice enough to not only take us into Mexico, which was a bit scary, but she also drove us all the way to Las Vegas for a night of sin in the city. It was great. We left my aunt super tired and with so many great stories to tell. It wasn’t until what would be my final Spring Break in grad school, would I experience such a memorable Spring Break vacation again.

Somewhere, somehow the announcement of an opportunity to spend spring break in a city of my choice for just a few hundred dollars found me. Alternative Spring Break is what they called it. I had heard of the program before while in undergrad but on most occasions used the break to go back home, away from the cold for a while. I still can’t recall how I came across the information, especially as a busy, very focused grad student, but years after the experience I’m so glad that it found its way to me.

Alternative Spring Break gives students across the U.S. the opportunity to spend their week away from school volunteering in a city and community that is in need of help. Most of all, students can volunteer in a capacity that they are passionate about and/or in a city they love or hope to fall in love with. For a small fee, participants can spend a week with about 12-15 other students their age having fun and doing some good. It’s no easy task to get into the program. There is, of course, an application along with a selection process.

New Orleans. In addition to the request for contact information, the application requested candidates identify their top 3 choices of places to volunteer if they were to be picked to be part of the program. New Orleans. I had no 2nd and definitely had no 3rd. I had decided that it would be N.O. or nothing at all. I wish I could say that it was the harrowing details I had experienced the people of Louisiana go through years before during Hurricane Katrina that made me so adamant about my choice. But it wasn’t. I’m a foodie. If you know one thing about New Orleans, it is that they have a very rich food culture, rich both in its diversity and its texture. I was drawn to the prospect of jambalaya, etoufee, shrimp po’boys, and live music to top it all off. New Orleans. There was no other option.

I remember when I found out my fate. I was in a hotel room overlooking New York City and, of course, with my parents. It was around the same time that applicants would find out 1. If we had been accepted to the program and 2. Which program we had been selected for. I was checking my email here and there, with a careful watch on the arrival of the message. Either way, I had to know. On that morning, in that hotel room, in one of my favorite cities, the email came, along with the answers: 1. Yes and 2. New Orleans.

New Orleans was exactly the way the films had portrayed it to be. It was colorful – both its people and its buildings. It was diverse. It was rich in history. It was musical. It was vibrant. It was naughty. It was nice. It was a food heaven (hello Cafe Du Monde). It was also still broken. But that’s why we were there. It was exactly why they had sent yet another group of college students to that city, maybe not to fix what was broken – years and a whole lot of money hadn’t done that. We were there, however, to add yet another stitch, with the hopes that at some point, after enough time and effort, the wound or at least the visual evidence of the wound would eventually close.

Me in New Orleans
An early morning headed to the work site.

 

During our week stay, our assignment was to clean up and refurbish a home that had been affected by Katrina. We woke up early each morning and left from our residence, which, ironically, was a church that too had been ransacked by the storm. The congregation that once held their services there was no longer around. The large area where I assume pews and a stage had been was completely bare. The church was now a place for volunteers to stay and pick up their tools on their way out to the battlefield.

Our Church Home:

Prepping the walls for paint.
Prepping the walls for paint.

Outfitted with gloves and masks, we stayed at the house for the entire day, each day working to make it better. It was there that I learned how to sand a wall getting it good and ready for a fresh paint. We cleaned. We moved. We threw away. We painted. We sanded. We took out. We replaced. Nasty and disgusting were no longer an excuse to walk away and let someone else handle the situation, at least not during that week. Most of all, I got an inside glimpse into my resolve. I had taken it upon myself to completely sand and paint one of the bedrooms. I was focused. I was diligent. I sanded until one of my teammates suggested that it was enough. I sanded a little more then went on to the paint. I didn’t talk much. I didn’t break much. I had a goal. With the help of a few of the other students, we finished the room. Our trophy for the achievement came when one of the coordinators, upon seeing our progress, commented that he didn’t think it was possible to finish such a project. But we had, and we did it well.

We had fun too that week. Each night when our vans arrived back at our church home, we raced to the showers to get ready for the night festivities. We did Bourbon Street. We ate at some great restaurants. We rode the streetcars through beautiful neighborhoods with exquisitely large homes. We danced. We danced in the street. We listened to live music. We spoke to the very nice people who called the city their home. We did New Orleans, and, if only in a small way, we helped it too.

Here’s to a great Spring and an even better Spring Break!

You don’t have to be a college student to go on an alternative spring break or vacation. You can create your own for yourself or with your family or a group of friends.

Have you participated in a volunteer vacation? Please, share your experience below!

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