For seven students from De La Salle High School in New Orleans, spending a week at Saint Mary's College was a welcome respite from living in a city in turmoil. The New Orleans students joined 165 other high-schoolers at a Lasallian Student Leaders conference held on campus between July 16 and 21.
During an interview, the students told stories of how life changed in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: Armed National Guard troops patrolling the streets, parents struggling with insurance companies, frustration over delays in rebuilding, and a pervasive anxiety about what the upcoming hurricane season will bring.
"People are so stressed," says Gabrielle Bethancourt, a 17-year-old senior. "So many people want to leave New Orleans now."
Fellow senior Cassie Schwartzmann, who will turn 18 on Aug. 29, the first anniversary of Katrina, says it is no longer the same New Orleans that she grew up in.
"They are dealing with very adult concerns," says Gina Hall, principal of De La Salle High School in New Orleans. "That's one of the reasons it was important to get them out of there and to come to Saint Mary's College for this conference."
Although De La Salle was spared physical damage and was the first high school in New Orleans to reopen, Hall said the school lost 200 students and 17 teachers, who were displaced by Katrina.
In the weeks after the hurricane struck, Hall moved to the Christian Brothers Provincial offices in Lafayette, La., where she set up a Web site so her far-flung students could post their thoughts and feelings.
"It was really comforting," recalls student Jimmy Riles. "When we did return to school, it was like we were going back to our family. I was ready to learn."
Kayla Picone, 17, lost her home in the hurricane and says she will attend college near New Orleans next year so that if a hurricane hits, she will be close to her family. But, like her fellow students, she says that traveling to Moraga for the Lasallian leadership training program has been a valuable experience.
"I've learned so much from this," says Picone. "I don't think I've ever felt closer to God or as comfortable with my spirituality before."
Principal Hall hopes there will be a silver lining to the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina if rebuilding efforts result in less poverty and a better public school system in New Orleans.
"It feels to me as a lifelong educator that this was a cleansing shower for a broken system," says Hall. "If we can provide quality education, the kids will want to stay."
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