Twelve Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) students spent Spring Break 2015 working with the organization Habitat for Humanity to build two new homes in the Gentilly section of New Orleans, a neighborhood badly damaged by the 2005 Hurricane Katrina.
The BMCC Office of Student Affairs provided funds for the students and two chaperones to take part in the Alternative Spring Break from April 6 through 11. The students were selected from a pool of 60 who applied to take part in the program. In New Orleans, they all stayed in a Central City three-bedroom apartment filled with bunk beds and one bathroom provided by the organization United Saints Recovery Project.
Each day started around 5:00 a.m. By 7:00 a.m. the group would meet at a nearby church that had a large kitchen where they made and ate breakfast and then prepared that day’s lunch. The group then traveled in a rented van to the worksite, where they worked from 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in 90-degree heat and New Orleans’ notorious humidity.
Real Construction Work
“When we got there, there was the structure of two houses. The basic frames were already in place,” said Robert Cortes, BMCC Student Affairs Counselor who chaperoned students along with Melissa Aponte, BMCC Student Affairs Assistant Director.
On the first day of work, two on-site coordinators, both 23 year-old female volunteers from Habitat for Humanity, spent around two hours laying out plans for the week. The coordinators, both recent college graduates, trained the students on how to properly use saws, hammers and ladders on a construction site.
“Four people walking up a twenty-foot ladder carrying a hundred-pound beam of wood for a new roof. These students and myself did some serious construction,” said Cortes.
Computer Information Systems major Chris Wilton said each member of the group was then assigned a role.
“The work included adding framework and supports to the inside of the house, putting up boarding to the front and back of the house, fitting the front door, and more,” said Wilton who is in his third semester at BMCC.
The group took 30 minutes for lunch. They would always finish each day by tidying up the site, putting all the tools away and then driving back to the Central City apartment where Wilton said, they would shower and get ready for dinner.
Experiencing New Orleans
Cortes said the New Orleans volunteer experience likely pushed some of the students beyond their New York City comfort zone. Upon arrival in Central City, the group was told what streets were safe, as well as which streets were off limits.
But, he said with the hands-on volunteer experience, the students’ eyes were opened to New Orleans in ways that tourists’ eyes would not.
“The people in New Orleans are so friendly, they would said hello and wave at us even without knowing who we were,” said BMCC student and Liberal Arts major Esi Panyin Asmah who added that the trip “left a beautiful mark in my life and the experience will never be erased.”
BMCC Criminal Justice Major Jeremiah Perez agreed, saying he hopes to go back to New Orleans and do more volunteer work when time permits.
“I was able to help a community that suffered from a tragedy so long ago, yet are still suffering till this very day. From the tours and learning the history and seeing the issues for myself, my heart was truly touched” said Perez.
Perez, who plans to complete a bachelor’s degree at Buffalo State, encourages other students to volunteer. He said spending time in New Orleans was more educational than reading about it in a book.