Eschewing bathing suits and beaches for hammers, saws and Tyvek suits might seem odd to some, but 70 MIT students plan to do just that, spending their spring break next week in the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast repairing, rebuilding and gutting homes damaged by last summer's storms.
Several campus religious organizations are taking students to the area devastated by Hurricane Katrina last August. In most cases, the trips were sponsored by the national side of the group's organization, and all are highly subsidized. Students are providing nominal amounts of money toward their trips.
"Most people have just really been wanting to do something," said Daniel Park (S.B. 2001; M.Eng. 2002) of the Asian Christian Fellowship (ACF). Park is not going along, but he helped organize a trip for roughly 40 MIT students from ACF and the United Christian Fellowship. The group is headed to New Orleans for eight days through the national InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
The students will leave on Saturday, March 25, and stay through the following Saturday.
Park was amazed by the interest he saw in aiding the Gulf region. "There are more people who want to help than there are opportunities to do so," he said.
The group will be staying at a local church in New Orleans and will be contributing to clean-up and recovery as well as anything else that is needed. "They will also spend some time talking about the social issues," Park said.
For the groups going, the trip is as much about understanding a complicated situation as it is about contributing to the rebuilding effort.
"I hope the students will gain a more critical eye politically," said Rachel Shiffrin, MIT Hillel's program director. Shiffrin is going to Biloxi, Miss., with eight students. The MIT Hillel students will be doing roofing work alongside students from several other schools, including Brown University, the University of Delaware and University of California at Berkeley.
The group will stay four nights in a tent community, where they will spend two nights listening to speakers discuss the history of the Gulf Coast crisis and two nights exploring Jewish learning and how their work is contributing to their spiritual lives.
"This is not just a trip," said Shiffrin. "It is an opportunity to educate the students."
Twenty students from the Protestant Student Community will also be headed to New Orleans on March 25 along with their advisor, Rev. John Wuestnick. They will be helping Common Ground Relief -- a community-initiated relief organization, established just after Katrina struck.
Wuestnick is no stranger to community service on spring break. Every year he takes a group of students on a trip to assist Habitat for Humanity, an organization that builds homes for low-income families.
"Some of these students have gone with me every year," said Wuestnick, adding that there was more interest than usual this year.
The Protestant Student Community students will be headed into the heart of New Orleans, where they will don Tyvek suits and respirators to protect themselves as they help gut homes damaged irreparably by the hurricane.
Although the spring break trips are already planned, the MIT Public Service Center (PSC) has extended the deadline for Hurricane Katrina Relief projects only to April 12. Visit web.mit.edu/mitpsc/.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 22, 2006 (download PDF).