At a time when most college students were just vegging out and gorging themselves on home cooking before heading back to school, five University of Pennsylvania students spent part of their winter vacation much differently.
The students traveled to Biloxi, Miss. – about 90 miles east of New Orleans – on New Year's Day as part of a national Hillel group working to help rebuild roofs on homes devastated last year by Hurricane Katrina.
"We did everything from stripping the roofs and replacing boards to tarring and shingling," said Lara Gitlin, a Penn senior whose expertise came during a brief training session and lots of "on-the-spot learning."
"Those of us outside the region feel helpless, and giving money is something we should do. But it isn't enough," she said.
The students joined 60 others hailing from the universities of Georgia, California at Los Angeles and Michigan. When their week was up, another batch of volunteers from other campuses continued the project.
"When the hurricane hit, I wanted Hillel to respond in the way it responds best – student volunteer power," said Michelle Lackie, director of the Weinberg Tzedek Hillel program, which focuses on public-service and social-justice projects. "Our first reaction is always: What can we do to help?"
With the aid of Nechama: Jewish Response to Disaster and United Jewish Communities, Lackie teamed up with the Gulfport, Miss.-based Westminster Presbyterian Church to take the baton from what the church has been doing in smaller towns outside the city. According to Lackie, the church group has been working with the local Jewish community and other religious institutions as part of an interfaith disaster-relief task force.
"It was definitely an impoverished neighborhood in an area of Biloxi that wasn't so well off, even before the hurricane," said Penn senior Beth Mlynarczyk. "These people would not have roofs if we didn't put them on."
The Hillel students were provided with glatt-kosher food during their stay. According to Gitlin, there's one active synagogue in the Biloxi-Gulfport region, and the 60 or so Jewish families who call the area home didn't need as much support as others.
Students paid $125 for food, housing and materials, plus the cost of their own transportation down to the area. In addition, according to Hillel spokeswoman Jill Lewis, United Jewish Communities earmarked $109,000 to help fund the missions.
Lackie noted that Hillel is not new to the idea of assisting urban areas. She stated that each spring break, students from 40 campuses travel the world – to such locales as the former Soviet Union, and to South and Central America – to volunteer. This spring, in addition to those trips already planned, some 300 other students will trek back to the Gulf Coast to do more work.
Gitlin said that the experience changed her life: "I think the devastation down there is something television and words can't capture. It's sobering to see it, but inspiring to see people so optimistic about the future. It was wonderful to see so much hope amid the sadness."