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Disaster Recovery

Students in a Gulf Coast community service program get a chance to make a difference after last year

Hurricanes Rita and Katrina left many on the Gulf Coast struggling to regain a sense of normalcy and forward momentum. But they also gave students at a number of school districts the opportunity to get involved with their communities and learn math, science, ecology, English, and even art in the process.

The Gulf Coast WalkAbout program began after Jim Kielsmeier, president and CEO of the St. Paul, Minn.-based National Youth Leadership Council, flew down to see what he could do in the aftermath of Katrina. After a lengthy tour last October, he believed that a service-oriented program would get students involved in the rebuilding, and give them valuable education to boot. State Farm Companies Foundation agreed and created a number of grants that were awarded to five districts: Moss Point and Picayune in Mississippi; Capdau Charter School and Sophie B. Wright Charter School in New Orleans; and Port Arthur in Texas.

In all, 12 schools participated, with each site putting together teams of between 100 to 130 students working with teachers, college students, and adult volunteers. Named after the rite of passage to adulthood for Australian Aboriginals, the WalkAbout program allowed student groups to walk through their communities, documenting in writing and photography the needs of residents. Along the way, they learned project management skills, created newsletters, wrote letters to local legislators, and did math and science tasks related to the hurricanes' aftermath.

"The WalkAbout represents the tangible expression of how young people can be contributing forces in effecting change in their communities," says Kielsmeier. "There's a lot of rhetoric about people as assets, but what we needed was a demonstration of that idea."

Well-Rounded Effort

At the Port Arthur district, students took field trips to botanical gardens to study ecology, but also made blankets for elderly residents at a local nursing home and put together "hurricane bags" with toiletries and other necessities for homeless shelters.

"The kids were really creative in their ideas about what residents needed," says Eddie Fowler, site coordinator and Port Arthur Alternative School Administrator. "For example, they had the elderly list their medications, and they typed them up and laminated the lists so they could have them in case of another storm."

" The WalkAbout represents the tangible expression of how young people can be contributing forces in effecting change in their communities."
-Jim Kielsmeier, president
and CEO, National Youth
Leadership Council

In connecting with older residents, students also learned dance, golf, cooking and sewing, says Natasha Soularie, a teacher at Port Arthur Alternative School. "It was such a well-rounded effort," she remembers. "They enjoyed themselves, and did writing and science at the same time."

Academic opportunities came from studying storm patterns, taking soil samples and discussing the impact on wildlife, says Fowler. Both the community service and the educational sessions helped students to work through their frustrations and feel better prepared if another storm were to hit.

"Personally, I'm still living in a FEMA trailer, and everybody in this area is still impacted in some way," Fowler notes. "Working on the WalkAbout let kids hash out some of their feelings while getting more connected to the community."

Helping Neighbors

Some projects seemed minor but had a big impact, says Brenda Lewis, site coordinator for the Moss Point school district. For example, a popular bed and breakfast had nearly lost its garden, and students decided to pitch in one day and help when they learned the owner had cancer. As they approached with gardening tools, the owner had tears in her eyes, Lewis says, and many of the students did as well.

"They realized then what it took to make a community run, and how it felt for people to help each other," she notes. "The recovery process seems so overwhelming sometimes, but it feels more manageable at this level of understanding one person's needs and meeting them."

In creating opportunities for students to pick projects, the WalkAbout fostered a sense of leadership, Kielsmeier adds. That type of empowerment created an attitude that let them tackle academic lessons with the same gusto that they did in creating newsletters.

"With every type of activity, there was critical thinking," he says. "They thought about how to put the community back together, and that created active learning. It's a very enlivened educational model."

Districts are already planning on doing more WalkAbouts next year, and many have noted that they expect the lessons learned over the summer will extend not just into the next academic year but linger into the future as well.

"There's a greater sense of connection, and we've seen that the kids who participated really benefited," says John Spence of the Texas Learn and Serve Commission, which acted as a fiscal agent for the Texas districts. "They were able to learn academic lessons, but also to get greater awareness about their communities, and how they could help."

Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer based in St. Louis Park, Minn.