Students Continue to Lend a Hand in New Orleans
by Catherine Gabe

“There’s so much to be done,” says Randy Shafer-Rickles ’07, knee-deep in the debris of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. Like the other Oberlin students who had planned to spend just a few weeks in the region over fall break or winter term, Shafer-Rickles decided to stay put for the spring semester. “Everyone is working so hard, but the work never ends. It can take days to gut a house, even with six or seven other people. Then you look around and still see blocks and blocks more.”

Since the start of hurricane cleanup efforts last fall, Oberlin students have made their presence known in New Orleans, where they’ve had an in-the-trenches education in local politics, geography, and the environment. Dozens of students helped clean out homes and businesses; others helped with legal work. All of them spoke of the vibrant culture and resiliency that defines the city’s population.

“This is not just community service, but a chance to understand why we need to keep this culture going,” said Krista Lewicki ’07 in the January 23 issue of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “For me, the best way to do that is to partake in it.”

Nineteen Oberlin students caravanned south during fall break, followed in January by 19 students sponsored by the Center for Service and Learning and 12 people sponsored by the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life. Even more students chose to make the trip independently, working tirelessly to gather supplies and raise money to secure transportation and living costs.

Brendan Morris ’08 and Krista Lewicki ’07 were leaders of the Center for Service and Learning group, which won a $10,000 grant from the Bonner Foundation for food, lodging, and transportation during their two-week stay in the city. “There were dozens of Oberlin students and alumni down there,” Morris says. “Oberlin students have a service consciousness and want to meet others who are activists.”

All the students found ready work among various organizations: Rebuilding Hope in New Orleans, the National Estuary Project, the Preservation Resource Center, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, and Common Ground, a new and rapidly growing grassroots organization. In many cases, Oberlin students lived among other workers, many in the Ninth Ward. They slept little, worked long hours, and became an integral part of the local community—earning repeated thanks for their efforts.

Arthur Richards ’07, just weeks after the storms last fall, hurried south with a rented truck stocked with donated food, grills, and propane tanks. He and others spent the fall semester volunteering with the Houma Nation, a Native American tribe southwest of New Orleans that was hit with six feet of floodwater. There, they built a much-needed media center out of the remnants of 40 flooded computers, which soon became a vital link through which residents and volunteers could contact FEMA and the Red Cross, post stories, and alert relatives of their status. “When I first reached New Orleans, I got about four hours of sleep,” says Richards. “There was so little time to deal with emotional stress.”

Maya Shulman-Ment ’09 and her classmates helped clean out a restaurant. The owner, upon seeing them for the first time, was skeptical: “I thought they were sending men. There’s a big tree in the back that needs moving,” he’d said. But by the time the women finished the work, Shulman-Ment says, the restaurant owner was praising their services.

Lily Krichels ’08 spoke emotionally about entering peoples’ homes and going through their belongings. “We would find an entire wardrobe or jewelry boxes or pictures of their children and we’d have to take them out and just dump them on the street,” she says. “I didn’t expect to get such a huge guilt trip out of this. I just couldn’t throw away a person’s life and not know who owned it or what it meant to them. ATS

Above, from left: Associate Professor of Theater and Dance Caroline Jackson Smith; Alumni Association President Wendell Russell, Jr. ’71; Assistant Director of Leadership Giving Saunjula Staton; Michael Lythcott; and alumna Jacqueline A. Berrien ’83.

Oberlin Honored by UNCF

Nearly 850 members of the Oberlin community donated funds totaling $148,000 for storm-ravaged Dillard University in New Orleans. The act was recognized by the United Negro College Fund at its 62nd anniversary dinner on March 9. Representing Oberlin were College Trustee Michael Lythcott ’70 (top left), President Nancy Dye (center), and Board of Trustees Chair Robert Lemle ’75 (right). Also pictured are Colin and Alma Powell (on either side of Dye), who received the United Negro College Fund’s highest honor, the Frederick D. Patterson Award.

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