Alternative Spring Break, New Orleans: Day 1!

Each year during Harvard’s spring break, PBHA’s Alternative Spring Break program sends student volunteers on public service trips across the United States. This spring, nine freshman students traveled to New Orleans to build vegetable gardens as part of the city’s continued efforts to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. The students blogged throughout the trip, reflecting on the city’s redevelopment and their role in the community; this is part one of their series.



I’m Saranya. I’m a freshman in Grays and will be in Lowell next year! I am a co-director this year, and I hope to be concentrating in Computer Science and Government. I’ve been coming to New Orleans since I was in 7th grade, through my middle/high school in New York. Every year I see huge changes and improvements here. The first time I came to New Orleans, the Lower Ninth Ward was dirt and trailers. Now there are brightly colored solar-paneled houses on stilts. But there are still houses with FEMA markings, and there is so much more to be done.

Volunteers circle up to get ready to head down to New Orleans.

Volunteers circle up to get ready to head down to New Orleans.

We woke up pretty early in rainy Boston and landed in New Orleans at 4. I think everyone had forgotten exactly what warmth felt like, so we were all very grateful to see the sun again. Gene and Robert took us around New Orleans and brought us to Dillard University, where we are staying. It’s beautiful, and we all missed seeing grass. We explored Jackson Square and Frenchmen Street, which I think was a huge culture shock for the rest of the group. We then met alumni for dinner. They are all involved in civil interest, from running a youth farm (Grow Dat Youth Farm), to doing Teach for America, to doing research for a PhD on New Orleans.

I talked a lot with Alyssa, who worked at a charter school here through TFA and then stayed. What struck me most about what she said is that there are so many problems with charter schools. TFA in general promotes a culture of high turnover rates, which leads to instability within the schools. The kids don’t feel like they need to impress or even respect a teacher who will be leaving soon.

Then there’s the problem of getting funding, because charter schools have to perform well to keep getting funding. Teachers are pressured to have their kids perform well in standardized tests, which I personally think are never indicative of intelligence or education. I found that when I was taking the SATs, wealthier people who could afford tutors did well while smart people who didn’t get tutors didn’t do as well. So teachers are pressured by charter schools to make the kids do well on tests that don’t really mean anything for the students themselves.

This got me thinking about general inequity in New Orleans. An alumnus Sarah told us that New Orleans is a food dessert, making healthy food nearly inaccessible to poorer people due to distance or price. Gene had told use earlier that New Orleans was built like a bowl, so that the richer neighborhoods on the rim like the French Quarter were basically untouched by the Hurricane while the poorer neighborhoods at the bottom of the bowl were severely affected.

There is something to be done in every way in New Orleans. From the education system to food sustainability to civil rights, we met alumni who have committed themselves to helping a wonderful city. People like them have made the city what it is now, and are working to make it even better. There are so many nonprofits and organizations here devoted to improving New Orleans, and it really reflects the people here, and how much everyone is willing to help.

Before the trip started, Kate (who runs the ASB trips) told us a story of a girl who was walking along a beach. Every time the waves rolled in, starfish would wash up onto the coast and get stuck in the sand. The girl was walking among the hundreds of starfish, throwing them in one at a time.

Someone walked up to her and asked why she was doing it. She wasn’t making a difference; there were so many starfish. She picked up a starfish, looked at it, and threw it back in, and said, “Well, I made a difference to that one!”

Tomorrow we will be starting our own work, building a community center near Dillard, with garden boxes. I hope that the rest of the team feels as though we are making a difference, and will want to continue contributing to the development of New Orleans in the future. I’m super excited to see our project develop and to work with our team and the Palfreys!