Youth Corps calls for action in Gulf area

College students rebuild hurricane-affected regions in New Orleans.

Heather L. Mueller

Money makes it possible to reconstruct levees, homes and buildings destroyed by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, but some University students and alumni said there is a human element missing in the rebuilding of New Orleans.

To view video clips of the documentary or fill out a volunteer application, go to: www.thegyac.org

As part of a national tour to recruit 80 volunteers, Kyshun Webster, Gulfsouth Youth Action Corps CEO and University alumna, shared a message – “Still Weathering the Storm” – along with six children before an audience of more than 60 people at Coffman Union on Friday.

The Corps is a service-based volunteer network within Operation REACH. The program brings college students to New Orleans to rebuild youth services in hurricane-affected regions, especially those that lost community recreation staff and funding.

Last July, five University students volunteered as counselors and lived at Xavier University of Louisiana dorms during the Corps’ inaugural six-week summer day camp in New Orleans.

The free camp, which focused on service engagement and empowering local youth, gave approximately 360 children a safe place to play, make new friends, express themselves and grow while their parents worked to rebuild their lives.

Webster shared his personal story of displacement while shedding light on the current Gulf situation and the need for college-aged volunteers.

“Unfortunately we have many homes that have not been rebuilt and sit gutted and rotting,” he said.

But Webster said he believes college students can help the Gulf transition from “devastation to restoration,” even though President Bush’s recent State of the Union address failed to mention the need for continuing support and long-term recovery.

A documentary the six youths created at camp depicted the devastation, displacement and dashed hopes they experienced.

The footage focused on varying aspects of the aftermath, including Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers plopped next to collapsed homes, graffiti-like markings made by search and rescue teams to signal which houses had been checked for dead bodies and tour buses which carried sightseers through destroyed and vacant neighborhoods.

Corps counselor and communications senior Laura DeRung visited the Ninth Ward, where the levee broke, to see what these children and families endured.

“It was almost scary to go there,” she said. “It’s like a ghost town, literally. I mean, you could not even hear a bird chirping.”

Fellow counselor Brayan Larsen, a United States ethnicity senior, expected to see collapsed homes, but he wasn’t aware of the lack of progress in the area nearly a year after the storms hit.

“What really got to me was the fact that it looks just fresh, like it happened yesterday,” he said. “There are some places that have not even been touched, and that, as a citizen of this country, that incenses me to know that there’s blatant disregard for a group of people.”

Despite the controversial situation in the Gulf, DeRung said the residents’ hope for their community inspired her.

“You can tell they love their city and even though it was destroyed, they have this hope inside and this determination that they’re going to rebuild their city,” she said.

Each camp activity played off their determination to make a comeback and taught campers that they can have a positive impact on their community’s future.

“Some people didn’t want to express themselves, you know, related to the flooding; they were more interested in the dancing or the drum activities or just going swimming,” Larsen said. “Just to be able to be a kid, I think, was a good step.”

The counselors noticed some campers struggled at first to deal with emotions and make friends.

“Sometimes kids in camp acted out or were just really passionate and emotional seemingly about nothing,” Larsen said. “But being older, we can see they’re definitely getting affected by the whole situation.”

Camp counselors and participants described the hard goodbyes on the last day. Tears ran heavily down the cheeks of campers and counselors, as it was hard to leave those who came to understand what it meant to live in the Gulf.

Fourteen-year-old camper Bryanna Cooper said Katrina gave her “a wake-up call” and made her grow up overnight. She said helping with the documentary encouraged her to speak out.

“I feel it’s really important to give kids a voice, because there are so many young people committing crimes because they don’t feel any power,” DeRung said.

Camp counselor and journalism sophomore Sam Crews faced the six youths on stage and told the audience, “These guys are the reason to go down there; my mind was blown to smithereens by how bright and insightful they were.”

Many said they plan to volunteer in the Corps this summer.

“Keep in mind, you don’t have to go to New Orleans to get involved, just go in your backyard and get involved,” Larsen said. “This is the type of work that doesn’t ever end. It’s just a matter of finding the right place to do it.”