Students tackle Katrina’s damage during spring break


For many UVA students, spring break is typically a time to party like it’s Apocalypse Eve. But for those rare students not in search of a bacchanal, the week-long term is a chance to volunteer.

The nonprofit Building Goodness Foundation shipped eight of Thomas Jefferson’s intellectual spawn 950 miles to Pearlington, Mississippi, where they helped to build a town community center for a week.

Put away the books, pick up the spades: UVA students Francis Alec Norman and Thushara Gunda clear Chinese tallow in Brechtel Memorial Park near New Orleans.

“This is where people live, and where the families interact,” says Melissa Ronayne, Building Goodness’ community outreach coordinator. During Hurricane Katrina, a 28′ wave rolled down a nearby river, decimating a town that was already dirt poor. Immediately following, Building Goodness began traveling to the west Mississippi town to build shelters for residents. Building Goodness work trips continue to head to the tiny town every other week to construct the 6,000-square-foot structure. While it should be finished in the fall, students worked on the exterior doors and windows, and the interior framing.

A short distance away, to the west and south of Lake Pontchartrain, eight more UVA students toiled away in Brechtel Memorial Park. Before Katrina, the 100-acre park in west New Orleans featured one of the most diverse and beautiful plant and wildlife habitats of any urban park in the U.S. Then came the hurricane and its winds, which hit the park harder than the water did. More than 80 mature trees were destroyed and the park received a general tossing about.

So, on March 3, a group of students from various universities assembled to start clearing the park’s once vibrant nature trail, all under the supervision of the National Wildlife Federation’s Rebecca Triche.

“We are trying to work before the rain comes,” Triche says. After clearing the trail, students turned to the planting of hundreds of new trees to repair the natural canopy the destroyed forest provided to the life underneath. The loss of that covering has facilitated drastic growth of invasive species—particularly Chinese tallow—that have proliferated to the extent that they are choking out native plant life, including would-be trees. As a result, students cut the vine to its stump and then applied herbicide.

“It’s amazing to see how much was destroyed and how much it’s taking to bring it back,” says Triche. “We’re so glad these students could help.”

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