Schenectady County

Union class learns, helps out on Gulf Coast

A group of Union College students has been doing a little bit of everything on their current trip to

A group of Union College students has been doing a little bit of everything on their current trip to Louisiana.

They’ve been having a good time, seeing a Zydeco band, getting ready to visit the French Quarter.

But the bulk of their trip has been spent demolishing and painting.

Today, they’re going to be planting.

It’s all part of a class held during break dedicated to community service.

For the first three years, the class has been focused on volunteering and learning about the continuing cleanup in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region after Hurricane Katrina.

“We’re having a great time,” senior Rachel Cohen said Friday by phone from the city. “We’ve met a lot of cool people. They all want to tell you their story about Katrina. They’re really grateful for the help.”

Today’s work is to be on the Gulf Coast at the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program near Port Forchon, helping to replant native grasses in an effort to slow the erosion of vital wetlands.

The class was born in the wake of Katrina, according to sociology lecturer Janet Grigsby, who has accompanied the 16 students on this year’s trip.

That first winter after Katrina, 30 Union students made the trip with advisers and staff as the hurricane cleanup effort was still in its infancy.

The massive cleanup and restoration has brought countless thousands of college students and other volunteers to the region in the years since.

The 2005 trip was followed by another in 2006. By 2007, the effort was made more formal with a mini-term class built around it, Grigsby said.

This year’s group left Dec. 6 and is to return Dec. 20. The cost of the class is $1,500 per student, which is only what it costs the college to offer it, she said. The amount covers transportation, housing and food for the two weeks.

“We don’t just come down and fix houses,” Grigsby said by phone from New Orleans. “The intention is for students to understand what kinds of things go on down here, and what kinds of things led to a disaster like Hurricane Katrina.”

Future classes may go elsewhere, Grigsby said. But for now, there’s plenty of service still to be done in and around New Orleans.

After the students return, they’ll give presentations on their experiences.

The demolition and construction work has been new to some, said Cohen, originally from New Jersey. Cohen has had some experience herself through her grandfather, who made cabinets.

“Some people really didn’t understand how much energy and time it takes to rebuild a house,” she said. “A lot of the houses they don’t want to knock down, they want to rebuild and recover what they had.”

Today’s effort is focusing on the disappearing wetlands along Louisiana’s coast. The students and other volunteers are to help plant 4,500 native wetland plants and grasses in an effort to slow the disappearance of the wetlands.

Cohen said she’s looking forward to the experience.

“We’ll probably get really dirty, but I think it’ll be fun,” she said.

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