Each Jan Term, hundreds of Saint Mary's students opt for service-learning opportunities, from the favellas of Brazil and guarderias of Mexico City to the backstreets of Harlem. This year, New Orleans' Ninth Ward was added in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
In far-flung venues, students cleaned up storm-ravaged neighborhoods, painted classrooms, or helped children. All of the work mattered, and people and places were transformed. But, as these diary entries reveal, some of the greatest transformation was within those who did the work. Saint Mary's students have seen their lives take an entirely new course as a result of their service-learning experiences.
On these two pages, a sample of reports and reactions from last January. And a reflection from Trish O'Brien '99 on where her Jan Term service seven years ago unexpectedly led her.
Much of Aceh, Indonesia, remains in ruins after the 2004 tsunami.
My Jan Term experience in 1999 in the Philippines with Brother Dominic was life-altering in several respects. Being exposed to the plight of street children, we witnessed poverty and the simplicity with which they lived—and began to discern the difference.
I met my husband, Dean, when we were both Lasallian Volunteers in Chicago. We moved to New York to complete degrees in international development. We later served in Zimbabwe and Thailand, and in October 2005 Catholic Relief Services asked Dean to come to Aceh to help with tsunami relief. I teach at a community school, providing psychosocial assistance to displaced children.
During my time here I've reflected so much on my experience in the Philippines. I struggle with the same questions of justice that surfaced there seven years ago. Every night, I bike home to my husband and our comfortable house knowing that many of my students are returning to a tent without a mother or father. Yet, these people show tremendous resilience and strong religious convictions. Accepting that their loved ones are with God is a moving testimony of faith.
— Tricia (O'Brien) Johnson '99
"I thought foreign people were different than Americans. Because I have never traveled, in a strange way foreign countries seemed to be an imaginary place that didn't really exist. The reality I found in Brazil is that people are just like me. The reality I encountered made me realize I don't know a hell of a lot about reality.
— Ian McQuary, Class of '08
"The intense poverty was hard to cope with. Families had dirt floors, no running water, no toilets... A number of malnourished kids had parasites. Yet the children were very friendly and it was amazing how they gave you all of their love without question. This experience made me open up my heart, and I felt that I no longer knew who I was. I thought it was awesome that even though people there had nothing, they had God's love and were happy."
— Sarah Churchill, Class of '06
"If I had it to do over again, I would bring stronger bug spray."
— Senior Belen Garcia, Class of '06
The devastation of New Orleans was evident months after the hurricane. Students restore a community garden and remove a refrigerator from a flood-damaged house (below).
A team of 24 Saint Mary's students, led by Associate Dean of Liberal Arts Shawny Anderson and Marcia Ong '02, documented their Hurricane Katrina relief work in New Orleans during Jan Term in a documentary film, photographs and online journal (see stmarys-ca.edu/nola). In addition to gutting flooded homes and restoring community gardens, the team forged lasting relationships with people they met in New Orleans. The following excerpts provide a glimpse into the destruction and determination, sadness and hope, witnessed by the relief workers.
Day 2— We headed out to a community garden full of debris… We got to work, and were thrilled when neighbors stopped by expressing their gratitude. They said that everyone is dealing with such important issues that "no one has had time to bring back the beauty.
Day 3— A day of shocks to the system: our bodies struggled in many ways, our minds raced as we tried to process all we were seeing and experiencing, and tears flowed as we faced the magnitude of the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina on individual and family lives.
Day 19— Some park workers came by and asked us who we were... When we told them we were Saint Mary's College students, they said that they had seen students working there before, but that no one had ever done the work so well. They said that our part of the park looked better than it had ever looked, hurricane or no. Yay, us!
Day 20 — Rosie talked to everyone individually, telling us how low her faith in humanity and in God had dropped after the storm. She says that our arrival in her life has changed her perspective entirely; of course, we feel the same way... All of us believe that we have done some of the most important work of our lives in service to the families in that room. They have become part of our NOLA family.
Reflections student's personal journals:
"I do not know for sure what was really the reason for Katrina, but I do know and strongly believe in destiny. God has a plan for all of us and everything happens for a reason. The people on this trip were chosen for a reason and will help create a better understanding of faith, love, casualties, and more."
— Sal Ortiz, Class of '09
"Overall my experience here has been life-changing. I look at the houses, cars, streets, and pretty much everything around here that has been affected by Katrina and realize that this scene has become a part of us... Adjusting to our previous life will not be easy."
— Jorge Mejia, Class of '07