By John Grennan
As Dave Blanchard and Emily Robbins were beginning their sophomore year in 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, killing more than 1,800 and leaving at least 1 million people homeless.
Communities across the country — including Saint Mary’s — were moved by the tragedy and sought ways to help. When Associate Dean Shawny Anderson led a 2006 Jan Term course organized around relief work in New Orleans, Robbins and Blanchard were among the 24 students who enrolled.
Four months after the storm, the scope of the damage stunned them.
“I expected a lot of work to have already been done,” Blanchard says. “But when we got there, I felt like the storm must have hit just the day before.”
“It was like a ghost town everywhere we went,” Robbins recalls. They immediately went to work, joining local partners in clearing 23 houses in the Upper Ninth Ward. The students’ camaraderie and their relationships with local residents proved essential.
“We really all clicked,” Robbins says.
“Everybody figured out what they were good at, whether it was floorboards or ceilings, and they’d get right to work,” Blanchard adds.
The College’s work in New Orleans has continued, with a second Jan Term group in 2007, a spring break trip and another Jan Term class, including Robbins, in 2008. Both students said that scholarships allow them to participate fully in the life of the College, including their Hurricane Katrina service trips. Robbins received a Raymond A. White scholarship and Blanchard received Hallerberg, Handlery and Wilder Trust scholarships.
While New Orleans is never far from their minds, Robbins and Blanchard are also active in student life at Saint Mary’s.
Since sophomore year, Robbins has been a leader of the Campus Activities Board, which organizes events and brings outside speakers to campus. This year, she chairs the group, which has sponsored events ranging from dances and poetry readings to a peace vigil and a Darfur fundraiser.
“Emily’s work on the Campus Activities Board has really changed the face of the College,” Anderson says. “She’s found a way to find a balance — bringing more events that focus on social justice, but are also still fun.”
An English major, Robbins has been a student representative on the Core Curriculum Task Force.
Blanchard, a finance major, has also played a significant role in the academic affairs of the College. As a member of the Academic Honor Council, he works with other students to ensure academic integrity.
In his work-study job, he helped coordinate the renovation in Dante Hall, where the College commissioned a mural of scenes from The Divine Comedy. He also set up the Jan Term video displays in the hall’s main corridor. In recognition of these efforts, the College named him the 2007 Student Employee of the Year.
Blanchard starts as a midfielder on the varsity soccer team. He’s captain this year, setting the tone for a squad with 14 freshmen.
“He’s a very good leader and knows how to communicate to the young guys,” Coach Adam Cooper says. “He’s hard-working, unselfish — the kind of kid you want on your team.”
Robbins and Blanchard, along with the 52 other Saint Mary’s students who’ve worked in New Orleans, stay in touch with residents of the city and share their concerns for its future.
“I hope people keep coming back and don’t forget about New Orleans,” Robbins says. “I hope they bring back the sense of community in the neighborhoods.”
“So many people say that all their friends left and that it’s not like home,” Blanchard adds. “I hope it begins to feel like home again.”