Horrific news footage of New Orleans broadcast worldwide after Hurricane Katrina spurred many individuals and organizations to help rebuild the city.
Faculty and students at the University of Pennsylvania took their volunteerism to a different level after one of its alums, Marc Morial, a 1980 University of Pennsylvania graduate and former mayor of New Orleans, spoke at Penn the week after Katrina. Morial challenged them to take the “whole walk” in rebuilding the city, not just come once to clean up.
“The (secular, nonsectarian) University of Pennsylvania saw the opportunity,” University of Pennsylvania’s John DiIulio said. “We saw New Orleans as a laboratory for the country. How do you rebuild one of the greatest cities in the country?”
In 2006, the University of Pennsylvania made a 10-year commitment to send five graduate students a year to New Orleans to work in the school’s post-graduate leadership program, Fox Fellows.
DiIulio, director of Penn’s Fox Leadership Program for undergraduates, said Fox Fellows partnered with Catholic Charities New Orleans to have graduate students shadow Catholic Charities executives as they worked to restore New Orleans.
“We made a covenant to serve (through 2016) and want to bring students of faith and no faith to participate for real in the human, physical and recovery process of New Orleans,” DiIulio said of the Fox Learning program. “I think this is the greatest service learning opportunity there is.”
The University of Pennsylvania contributes $15,000 and pays rent for the five Fox Fellows while they work here, and Catholic Charities New Orleans kicks in $10,000 plus benefits for each fellow, Dilulio said.
DiIulio said that since the university pledged its support to New Orleans in 2006, approximately 600 to 700 students also have completed 1,000 weeks of service learning during spring break. He’s personally made 16 visits here. He estimates that the entire investment of the university in New Orleans over the 10-year project – with the spring service projects and Fox Fellows – is $1 million-plus.
With many hammer-and-nails-type service projects offered by Catholic Charities and other organizations concluding, the University of Pennsylvania took a new approach to its recent 2012 spring break trip to New Orleans: making it an interfaith tour.
Catholic and Jewish students from the University of Pennsylvania plus the five Fox Fellows currently working in New Orleans toured sites around town affected by the hurricane and oil spill, places of worship and also stopped to talk with Archbishop Gregory Aymond
“Thank you all for your work,” Archbishop Gregory Aymond told the students. “We appreciate the relationship very much. I hope it is as beneficial to you as it has been for Catholic Charities. … We appreciate you being part of the team of reaching out to the less fortunate.”
Archbishop Aymond mentioned how New Orleanians still suffer post-traumatic stress disorder six years after Hurricane Katrina. But groups like theirs were the blessings that followed the disaster.
“You have become the hands and hearts of reaching out to people, and we appreciate it very much,” Archbishop Aymond said.
The students shared their observations on the interfaith trip in early March. One from Oregon was amazed that effects of the storm remain six years later.
“Coming down here and talking to people who went through it (Katrina) makes it more real,” another said. “In some small way, you can internalize it with your heart, not just your eyes.”
Another contrasted the unscathed French Quarter with the devastated 9th Ward, stunned that they can be in the same city but knowing each play a role in the city as a whole.
Others found inspiration in the stories of local residents who returned to New Orleans, recognizing the deep roots people have here. Witnessing strong faith amidst the loss touched the students as did hearing that faith-based groups spearheaded the rebuilding.
“People didn’t abandon their spiritual roots,” a student said. “There’s real spirituality in this city.”
New Orleans partnership cemented
Dilulio, a native of Philadelphia, thinks New Orleans is the cradle of American civilization. He saw an obligation for his university to help preserve this important city.
He said students who have experienced the rebuilding of New Orleans through the Fox Fellows graduate program have been indelibly changed by it. Their University of Pennsylvania experience was defined by New Orleans, Dilulio said, not their previous undergraduate work in the classroom in Pennsylvania.
Four of the current five Fox Fellows – Nicole Dillard, Maggie Tishman, Melissa Gradilla and Shira Lerner – will leave in June, but Erica Halpern will remain with Catholic Charities’ Cafe Hope through June 2013.
“It changed my view on New Orleans,” Halpern said about Fox Fellows. “I grew up in the northeast (Philadelphia) and didn’t know a lot about the south or the culture. New Orleans has made me grow and open up as a person. I’ve received so much warmth and kindness from people.”
Halpern, 24, an English major, has found working with at-risk youth rewarding.
“It’s been eye-opening seeing people struggle,” Halpern said. “Cafe Hope helping put youth on a path to self-sufficiency, a path to a brighter future and teaching that their current path does not have to dictate what their future holds.”
“You can’t buy that intellectual and civic learning,” Dilulio said. “We think it’s the greatest moral and civic teaching tool there is.”
Dilulio sees the Fox Fellows as long-term advocates for the city – young adults who will return to live here and positively impact New Orleans. Several are in law or medical school pursuing a more social justice slant in their post-graduate studies such as concentrating on public health in medical school training.
Their contributions to Catholic Charities New Orleans also has been appreciated. Catholic Charities New Orleans CEO Gordon Wadge said they are among the best and brightest and have executed anything thrown at them from taking notes to formulating business plans.
“They are invaluable,” Wadge said. “They are an infusions of energy. With young people, all things are possible.”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarion herald.org.