Not the typical words to describe what most college students saw during their spring break. Thirty-five Dana College students sacrificed their mid-semester time off to gut mildewed houses, poison rats, battle mosquitoes and bring hope to the victims of Hurricane Katrina in and around New Orleans.
Among the volunteers was Jennifer Hubert of Vermillion. Hubert, a 2006 graduate of Vermillion High School, is a Freshman Art K-12 Teachers major at Dana.
It was the second trip to the area for Dana College junior Kendra Johnson of Cedar Falls, IA. "It was such a good experience last year," she said. "I knew being there last year that there was such a huge need."
Johnson appreciated the symbolism in making the trip during the Lenten season. "You go down there and you think there is no hope," she said. "They are stuck in Good Friday and they can't make it to the hope of Easter. Just seeing us brought them some hope."
As on Dana's last spring break trip in March 2006, the students worked through Operation Blessing, an international non-profit humanitarian organization.
Although organized through Dana's Campus Crusade for Christ organization, the student volunteers came from all sectors of the campus. "You don't have to be in campus ministry to want to help people," Johnson said.
The Dana students were split up into teams who had unique tasks for the day. Some gutted homes that had not been opened since the disaster 19 months prior. Others worked to rebuild a community gymnasium. A third team was coined "Rat-Busters" and another was "Bug-Busters." Others were needed to stay back and clean the base camp.
Matt Jacobson, a sophomore from Craig, NE, spent his week working to rebuild the gymnasium. "People would come inside every day and thank us," he said. "When you're this many miles away, you see it on TV and then the coverage just stops. It was amazing when you get down there 19 months later and it still looks the same." Jacobson said. "It was really eye-opening to me to see they are still hurting after this long."
Rat-Busters is a new effort to try to control the increase in the rat population brought on by the tragedy. Volunteers worked with the New Orleans City Mosquito and Pest Control, walking city streets in some of the poorest neighborhoods to stick rat poison down sewer drains.
Bug-Busters' initiative was to control the mosquito population in some of the city's richest neighborhoods. Swimming pools have had stagnant water for 19 months and have become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Fish were placed in the pools to eat the mosquito larva.
For Dana College sophomore David Manley of Omaha, his two trips to the Gulf have literally changed his life. The former art major returned to campus after his trip and changed his major to social work.
"It's something I've always had empathy for," he said. "I like working with my hands and making something better."
"You're always going to remain affected by what you saw down there, Manley said.
The trip was made possible by donations by members of the Dana and Blair communities, including a pancake-feed fund raiser held at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Blair. "We couldn't have done anything without help," Johnson said.