Kemo Jammeh cuts bathroom tile with a diamond saw at the St. Bernard Project worksite. He was taught on-site how to use it.

Students Trade Fun in the Sun for Helping Others

While spring break is famous for fun-filled excursions to the beach, some students resist that temptation and instead seek out service opportunities. Last spring, two groups of Berea students put their hands and voices to work on behalf of others in need.

Spiritual Seekers and the Continuing Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

Students gather with members of Blessed Trinity Catholic Church.
Spiritual Seekers Gabriella Bugge, Aji Mbye, Andrea Dowlen, Kemo Jammeh, Shai Anderson, Guerds Jean, Lara Arm-strong and Ese Ataga join Father Daniel and members of the Blessed Trinity Catholic Church in New Orleans.

Though it’s been 13 years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, pockets of the area still have not recovered—primarily low-income areas. For one woman, Bridget Anderson of St. Bernard Parish, recovery has been fraught with obstacles and bad luck. Now, after more than a decade, she is back in her home thanks to the St. Bernard Project and volunteers, including students from Berea College.

These Bereans—Lara Armstrong ’18, Ese Ataga ’20, Gabriella Bugge ’18, Andrea Dowlen ’18, Kemo Jammeh ’21, Guerds Jean ’18, and Aji Mbye ’18—were brought together through a weekly luncheon called Spiritual Seekers, hosted by the Willis D. Weatherford Jr., Campus Christian Center. There, they heard about the opportunity to volunteer during spring break with the St. Bernard Project, a nonprofit that began in St. Bernard Parish after Hurricane Katrina and has since expanded nationwide, rebranded as SBP. In 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, St. Bernard Parish was 100 percent uninhabitable due to flooding. Though SBP has restored more than 1,400 homes to date, it still is rebuilding hundreds of low-income homes per year, with a special focus on families with small children, the elderly, persons with disability, war veterans and the under- or uninsured.“It was eye-opening just how bad the damage from Katrina was,” said Armstrong, an English literature major from Somerset, Ky., who began attending Spiritual Seekers in 2017. “I thought they had recovered, that New Orleans was great again. They’re really not. We need to help New Orleans. It’s a natural disaster turned into a man-made disaster.”   Case in point is Anderson’s home, which the students worked on during their trip. Displaced from the flood, Anderson and her two sons were temporarily placed in a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  

Lara Armstrong painting window trim
Lara Armstrong ‘18 paints the gold trim on an outside window. Lara and other members of the Spiritual Seekers group worked on this home with the St. Bernard Project during spring break.

This was short-lived due to toxic levels of formaldehyde from substandard building materials. When the water receded, the family attempted to move back home, but black mold made them sick, forcing them out again. To make matters worse, Anderson found herself the victim of contractors who would take her money and disappear either without doing the work or doing a shoddy job. Andy Stofleth, SBP director of communications, says the majority of the requests received involve work that was done by a contractor that is now failing. Spring break is the nonprofit’s busiest season, and over the month and a half that spanned various schools’ breaks this year, SBP enjoyed the help of roughly 3,000 volunteers in New Orleans alone.

“It’s always impressive to see students who are willing to give up their time to do meaningful work,” Stofleth said. “They could have been out doing anything else, but they chose to lend a hand. That speaks volumes.”

The Berea group, led by former college chaplain Ben Groth and Shai Anderson ’08, who advises international students and scholars on campus, did much of the finishing work on Bridget Anderson’s house. It took a total of four months to complete.

“Not to brag, but I can build you a bathroom now if you need me to,” said Dowlen, a political science major from Nashville, Tenn., who joined AmeriCorps after graduation. “I worked on tiling for the bathroom, mixing the solutions, and cutting and putting the tiles up on the wall. I inserted some vanities.”

Andrea Dowlen helps tile a bathroom.
Andrea Dowlen ‘18 gets her hands—and arms—dirty installing bathroom tile.

For Dowlen, the service trip was a way of repaying the kindness she had received growing up.

“My family relied on nonprofits and community-service organizations to help us in life,” she said. “Mom was a single parent, and we relied on the food bank, on church for clothing. I wanted to do a service trip because I wanted to impact someone’s life directly. Working on that house helped me realize that my purpose in life is all about serving others.”   The theme of giving back because of the experience of receiving aid is echoed by others in the group. Jean, a native of Haiti who grew up in Florida, expressed a similar view.  

International student volunteers to repair a home in Louisiana after the hurricane.
International Student Advisor Shai Anderson serving during the Willis D. Weatherford Jr., Campus Christian Center spring break service trip with the St. Bernard Project, a nonprofit that began in St. Bernard Parish, La., after Hurricane Katrina and has since expanded nationwide.

“We have a lot of hurricanes in Florida, and in Haiti, of course, we had the earthquake,” said the peace and social justice studies and Spanish double major who joined Teach for America after graduating. “I’m used to seeing how natural disasters affect people, and I have received a lot of help. It was nice to be on the opposite side of that.” Bridget Anderson visited with the volunteers while they put the finishing touches on the home, a face-to-face experience that inspired the group to work that much harder.  

“It was a pleasure to see that we had a positive impact on someone’s life directly,” said Shai Anderson. “Having an opportunity to meet the woman we were helping encouraged the work we were doing and provided a sense of putting 110 percent into everything we did, even if it was dusting or mopping the floor at the end of the construction, allowing her to have a clean home upon move-in.”

Bridget Anderson and her two sons celebrated the completion of their home on April 16, when SBP threw them “welcome home” party, 13 years after the hurricane had displaced them.

Bonner Scholars Serve in Central Kentucky

Group shot of Bonner Scholar students.
FRONT ROW: Gerald Thomas, Azis Toktobaev, Madeline Kujabi, Amber Earlywine, Yeongha Oh, Abby Rudolph (Community Garden Coordinator, Americana World Community Center) BACK ROW: Karmadri Santiago, Jamar Yewitt, Sara Heady, Kiyah Moore, Berucha Cintron, Montana Woodard, Alonna Walker, Gabby Bermudez Mejia, Travis Felty, Selena Romero, Raymond Okyere Forson, Hunter Malone.

Each year, first-year Bonner Scholars participate in a service trip during spring break. This year, 18 students traversed central Kentucky providing aid to a number of nonprofits in Lexington, Frankfort and Louisville. They began in Lexington at GreenHouse17, a domestic-abuse program that provides crisis counselors, emergency shelter and legal advocacy, among other services. The team, consisting of Berucha Cintron ’20, Chase Denny ’21, Amber Earlywine ’20, Travis Felty ’21, Sara Heady ’21, Madeline Kujabi ’21, Hunter Malone ’19, Gabby Bermudez Meija ’21, Kiyah Moore ’20, Yeongha Oh ’21, Raymond Okyere-Forson ’21, Selena Romero ’21, Karmadri Santiago ’21, Azis Toktobaev ’20, Gerald Thomas ’21, Alonna Walker ’21, Montana Woodard ’21, and Jamar Yewitt ’21, helped GreenHouse17 with donation management and accomplished in one day what would have taken the staff months to do: unload and organize storage pods filled with donations of things like food and personal-hygiene products. Not only did it help the one or two staff originally tasked with emptying the pods, it saved GreenHouse17 the money it would have spent on the storage pod rental. The volunteers also were able to play with some of the kids on site and helped repair an older van the Greenhouse uses to run the farm.

Sara Gabby Selena sorting clothes
Gabby Bermudez Mejia ‘21, Sara Heady ‘21, and Selena Romero ‘21 sort through donated clothing while on spring break.

The bulk of their trip, though, was spent in Louisville working with immigrant and refugee communities in conjunction with Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM), La Casita Center and Americana World Community Center.
“One of my favorites was going to La Casita because it focused primarily on the Latino community,” said Berucha
Cintron, a computer-science major from Puerto Rico. La Casita provides goods and services to immigrant communities struggling to make a living. Cintron says her experience helped her relate and motivates her to serve.

“The majority of my life, I’ve lived the perspective of poverty,” Cintron said. “Where there is need, I see a human
duty to be part of the solution. I like to think the world is my community.” Cintron and the rest of the team helped prepare a community garden for planting at Americana World Community Center. The garden is one of several
community gardens that serve the Louisville refugee population. Gardening allows refugees to learn the Kentucky environment and to develop autonomy.

Students organize donated kitchen supplies.
Jamar Yewitt ‘21 and Hunter Malone ‘19 organize kitchen items donated for refugees in Louisville.

At the KRM warehouse, the group again assisted with donation management for refugees seeking assistance. The
warehouse stores everyday necessities from mattresses and clothing to plates and silverware. Chase Denny helped
separate donations into those stored at the warehouse for when apartments need to be furnished in preparation for a
family’s arrival and then those items that could be donated to Goodwill. The donations create a credit that allows KRM clients to “shop” at Goodwill for clothes that suit their size and taste.

Denny, a political science major from Point Pleasant, W.V., said the experience at the refugee center and
KRM widened his perspective.

“We saw such a diverse population of refugees,” he said. “We got to see people from all over the world who came to Kentucky to start a new life. It definitely widened my perspective on the different people in the area I didn’t
know existed.”

Yeongha Oh sorting dishes
Bonner Scholar Yeongha Oh ‘21 separates donated dishes.

The students ended their trip at a rally on Refugee and Immigration Lobby Day at the state capitol in Frankfort. They made fliers, posters and a banner to show their support.

“At the rally, we promoted equality and justice for those who may not have their own voices,” Denny said. “It was
really touching to see all the diverse people coming together regardless of their backgrounds or beliefs.”

“There were refugees in the events with us,” Cintron said. “They held the banner with us. There was a speaker and
music. One woman said she had been trying to fight to be seen as a human being. That will stick with me—that you have to tell someone you’re a human being.”

While in Frankfort, the group met with state Senator Jared Carpenter, who shared about half an hour of his time with the students. For many students, this was their first time being in the capitol, attending a rally or meeting with an elected official.

“This kind of advocacy training and education is essential part of the Bonner Training module,” said Sarah Rohrer, associate director of CELTS. “Hopefully students will use these skills to speak to the issues about which they are most passionate.”

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