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TrekNorth students volunteer in New Orleans

Lindsey Owens, a senior at TrekNorth Junior & Senior High School, paints the trim of a window at a church in New Orleans. She was one of six students who took part in a weeklong service-learning trip to the city. Submitted Photo

BEMIDJI – After a day of sifting woodchips out of soil, Hannah Lash was tired.

“Oh my gosh, we were so sore,” she recalled.

Lash, a senior at TrekNorth Junior & Senior High School, was one of six students who recently returned from a weeklong service-learning trip to New Orleans.

Along with their two adult chaperones, Erica Harmsen and Deb Carlson-Doom, the students spent a week volunteering with the United Saints Recovery Project, a nonprofit founded in 2007 to help rebuild communities damaged by natural disasters.

“The United Saints was born out of a need for assistance following the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina,” states its website. “Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans with a devastating blow, one from which the city is still recovering. The housing needs of many residents, especially in the poorer neighborhoods, remain unmet.”

TrekNorth students saw that firsthand.

They performed manual labor as they helped rehabilitate homes and assisted a church after it was relocated from one side of the street to the other.

They also worked in a community garden that helped feed local residents, many of whom don’t have transportation available.

“In the area, the closest grocery store was two miles away,” Lash said. “It’s kind of in a food dessert.”

TrekNorth students are required to obtain service-learning credits throughout their high school careers. The school offers annual service trips to Chicago and West Virginia – and also local service projects throughout the school year – but this marked the first time students went to New Orleans.

“It was different from Chicago,” said Harmsen, the school’s service learning program coordinator who for seven years has led Chicago trips with Carlson-Doom. “Because, in Chicago, we would spend a week in the shelter, soup kitchen and schools. A lot of the week was spent talking and listening to stories and understanding the issues of poverty.”

In New Orleans, TrekNorth students performed manual labor and saw firsthand the devastation caused by Katrina in 2005.

“It’s amazing. It’s been eight years and there’s still so much left to do,” Harmsen said.

The group worked during the day and at night was able to explore the city and its neighborhoods. They took a social-justice tour and saw the destruction left behind, the vast emptiness where rows of houses once stood, and memorials to those who didn’t survive.

Lash said they were told there was two feet of water immediately after the hurricane hit, but once the levees broke, about 30 feet of water swarmed in within about a half-hour.

Harmsen said they learned 150,000 people left the city after the hurricane and never came back, noting once the TV crews and media moved on, rehabilitation funding dried up as well.

“Everyone who is working out there, everyone we met, was from another part of the country,” she said.

On the drive back to Minnesota, the group stopped at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn.

“It all tied together when we went to the civil rights museum at the end of the trip,” Lash said. “We looked at that differently because of the experience of our trip.”