Three years after Hurricane Katrina, recovery is far from complete. Hundreds of students and faculty from schools across Penn are volunteering in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in what may be the largest university-based relief effort from outside the immediate region. By Samuel Hughes


The trumpet sobbed—long, mournful cries and sputtering, bawling half-notes—as the Crescent sped through the Deep South. Charlie Miller’s “A Prayer for New Orleans” had come up randomly on my older son’s iPod, and though I had listened to it before, I had never really heard it. Now, in the dark sleeper compartment, I did.

Music was just one small way to prepare myself for this trip to New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but it somehow seemed an important one. Nick Spitzer C’72, host of the Big Easy-based “American Routes” radio show, put it best: “Without music, we can’t rebuild this city.” I also spent a good part of the 28-hour train ride immersed in No Ordinary Heroes: 8 Doctors, 30 Nurses, 7,000 Prisoners and a Category 5 Hurricane, by Demaree Inglese M’92, the riveting account of his efforts to maintain health and order in the Crescent City’s prison system during the hurricane and the lingering flood.

As we crossed the long causeway into the Big Easy, I looked out across the water. Aaron Neville’s haunting cover of John Hiatt’s “Feels Like Rain” came on:

We ain’t never gonna make that bridge tonight baby

Across Lake Pontchartrain

And it feels like rain.

Are you aware of the extent of Penn’s efforts in the Gulf?” Dr. Richard Gelles, dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice (SP2), had asked me. At the time, I wasn’t. That was back in January, and while I knew that some student groups were doing volunteer work in New Orleans, I had no idea how many, or how wide they had cast their net.

As it happened, my wife, Pat, and I had been talking about taking our two teenage sons, Tristan and Jesse, to New Orleans during their spring break for some Katrina recovery work and maybe a bon temp or two. Volunteer work, we thought, would be good medicine for all of us, especially the Privileged Teens. But we were still dithering when the dean tracked me down.

 “The University has probably the largest footprint in the Gulf of any university outside the immediate region,” began Gelles, who then swung into a discussion of the Fox Leadership Program’s efforts and the Center for Urban Redevelopment Excellence (CUREx) program, both in New Orleans, before moving to the Feldman Initiative in Hancock County, Mississippi, in which SP2 has played the lead role. When he started talking about the work being done by his MSW students and those from the dental and nursing and engineering schools—all of whom had rolled up their sleeves, gotten their hands dirty, hung out in places like Turtle Landing, and stayed in the local recovery center—a light went on. Sounded like a story—maybe more than one.

He saw the bulb glowing over my head. “It’s a life-changing experience,” he said, eyebrows arching enigmatically.

A few days later Connie Hoe SW’07, the indefatigable coordinator of the Feldman Initiative, informed me that we were booked into the Pearlington Recovery Center for five nights. Bring your own sleeping bags, work gloves, and bug dope, she said.

 

Trying to keep track of all the different Penn groups in the Gulf can be a full-time job. The largest contingent falls under the heading of Penn UNO—Penn Undergraduates in New Orleans, which sent some 200 undergraduates to the Crescent City over spring break this year. Most worked with Habitat for Humanity and Helping Hands, doing basic construction and grunt work. They stayed in Camp Hope, a barracks-like former school in St. Bernard Parish, half an hour southeast of the city.

Penn UNO’s largest segment is the Fox Leadership Program—FLINOLA: Fox Leadership in New Orleans, Louisiana—which sent 100 undergraduates there for a week this past March and is now sponsoring 15 students in 10-week summer internships. Other groups include MAJIC (Muslims and Jews in Cahoots), Civic House, Campus Crusade for Christ, the Newman Center, and Communitech, a technology-assistance program sponsored by the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Not all students are undergrads: CUREx, based in the School of Design and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, sent 21 master’s candidates in city and regional planning as interns in March to assist the Rockefeller fellows planted in various redevelopment agencies in New Orleans. The Feldman Initiative—which is putting its shoulder to the wheel in Hancock County—has been spearheaded by SP2 master’s candidates and includes students and faculty from the dental, engineering, and nursing schools. Nor is it just students: Last month 25 faculty and staff spent a week in June on a Habitat for Humanity project in St. Bernard Parish.

It’s an intense commitment for a university based more than a thousand miles away. But then, the whole notion of engagement—that a great American university should “engage dynamically with communities all over the world to advance the central values of democracy and to exchange knowledge that improves quality of life for all”—is a key element of President Amy Gutmann’s Penn Compact.

“It was clear that what we stood for was putting our knowledge into practice,” said Gutmann in a recent interview, “and if there ever was a case of engaging as an institution, this was one where we wanted to be leaders, not followers.”

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