Alternative Spring Break, New Orleans: Getting to Know New Orleans

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 three of their series. Read part one and part two here. 

I’ve never been to the South before. The most South I’ve gone is DC, and that’s not exactly the best example of southern living. Through PBHA, I found an opportunity to explore the south and do something worthwhile and meaningful over spring break. Through the Alternative Spring Break program, I am co-directing the freshmen service trip to New Orleans. It’s been amazing since day one.

On the first day, we landed in the airport at 4 pm and immediately took off our winter jackets. I instantly felt liberated. After setting down our belongings in Dillard University, where we were staying, we took a walk and explored Frenchman. I saw the Mississippi River and felt truly southern. Then I got a hearty dose of delicious southern comfort food later that evening. We had dinner with Harvard alumni at the Praline Connection and I gorged myself on fried catfish, mac n cheese, and collard greens. We met with the alumni and learned more about the important work they were doing in the city — a couple were involved in education, and were teaching in various schools around the city. Another was the founder of Grow Dat Youth Farm and was heavily involved with food justice and agriculture in New Orleans. Some others were more involved in the politics of New Orleans, and helping rebuild the civic community that had been greatly weakened after Katrina hit. It was a great way to begin our journey.

The next day we began work. We had a delicious breakfast of eggs, bacon, grits, and biscuits at Dillard and set off to embark on our service project. We worked to build garden boxes for two local churches, which would help support the community by providing a community center as well as giving the residents fresh fruits and vegetables to eat. We learned how to use a drill, and together we assembled six boxes from planks of wood. Then we painted the boxes with a brown stain, and coated it with clear polyurethane. It was hard, but meaningful work. What kept us going through the sweat and sun was the thought that our labor would one day benefit the community and give it something it sorely lacked.

Later that day we ate dinner at Dillard and had a rousing conversation about gender equality that arose when some comments were made about “girls and power tools.” It paved the way for a great conversation about openness, communication, and team building that continued throughout the trip. The next day (St. Patrick’s day!) we woke up bright and early and went shopping at Lowes for fruit bearing plants, vegetables, and herbs that we planned on planting into the garden boxes. We broke for lunch at Dooky Chase, enjoyed a scrumptious buffet lunch consisting mostly of red beans and fried chicken, and we met Leah Chase herself, who gave the girls some wisdom about the boys: “When they come around, they must treat you like queens.” Then we went back to another church, where we worked on building six more garden boxes, painting them, and trying our hand at hammering and using a saw machine. At the end of the day, we walked away with six more freshly painted garden boxes. Since it was St Patrick’s day, we went to see the parade on Bourbon street. Considering it was a Tuesday night, it was more exciting than Harvard’s most exciting Friday night. People were throwing multicolored beads from the street cars and balconies, music filled the air, and revelry abounded. It was a fantastic sight, and not one to be missed. By far, the best St Patty’s day I’ve ever experienced.

The trip is far from over, and we still have so much more work to do and so much more of New Orleans to experience, but so far, it’s been an absolute blast. The best way to spend spring break, hands down.

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