Sunday, March 12, 9:30 p.m.

“Good evening! How y’all doin’?” This was our Southern welcome to Alternative Spring Break.

Exhausted, we sat in an army-style tent pushing pecan pie down our throats with sweet tea listening to Jesus talk.

Normally, my Northern liberalism would have already prepared an attack on this profiteering evangelism. Yet, somehow in my Birkenstocks, my head swimming with cynicism, I was finding a way to listen.

As our camp leader unconsciously said in his presentation, “We’re grateful to you for helping, there’s hope that help is still comin’. Some of y’all aren’t even Christians, and that’s okay.”

Monday, March 13, 5 p.m.

First workday and I found myself in a park. Never before has the term “tree hugger” been more apropos for our band of brave volunteers.

We crawled under split trees, crossed a collapsed bridge and accidentally stepped in a septic tank, all in pursuit of debris removal. At first this task seemed trivial, however, as I was picking up my twentieth bit of Styrofoam – did I mention that a trash dump had been next door before Katrina – one of the locals appeared. “Can you get that branch loose from that tree? I planted this tree for a crippled boy.”

Upon first impression the elderly woman’s concerns were misguided. She wanted me to worry about a branch? Had she not looked around? Natural debris, especially that which was safely nestled in a tree, was my last concern. The local smiled, and reluctantly I began pulling free the dead branches, succumbing to her Southern charm and age. Soon, four team members joined me.

The woman smiled wide despite the destruction surrounding her and we put aside our assertions of the job’s triviality. Her smile was a poignant reminder that no task was unimportant for the relief effort.

Tuesday, March 14, 8 p.m.

I spent the day walking dogs left orphaned by Katrina and organizing food in the distribution center, but it was the story of Dorothy’s ceiling that caught my heart.

Dorothy, a native Mississippian, was overwhelmingly grateful for the return of her ceiling. Her husband had built the ceiling in the 1950’s and it had outlasted more than a few hurricanes. It had a certain quaint charm in part because he failed to create it “of the right dimension.”

The result was a frustrating battle to repair Alice in Wonderland’s playhouse against the rational realm of measurement.

Eight hours and nine UR students later, Dorothy’s ceiling sans quaint charm was repaired.

Despite the fiberglass stuck to their skin and Spackle across their faces, the ‘ceiling crew’ seemed satisfied upon return to camp. They had given back Dorothy her home.

Wednesday, March 15, 8:20 p.m.

When I woke up this morning I was sure that I could not get out of bed, and as I hung my head over weak coffee I was certain that I would not move to the work site.

Somehow, despite my best-laid plans, in a couple hours time I found myself on top of a roof. With hammer in hand, I began laying shingles.

And in a few more hours, I was watching a homeowner perform magic tricks while MSNBC taped interviews with UR students. As we began singing “Smile On Your Brother,” maybe just maybe a bit of the South grew on me.

Thursday, March 16, 7 p.m.

A couple of UR students and myself spent the day in the remnants of what was once a home, searching through the ruins for keepsakes and salvageable clothing. The homeowner, John, had been sent by his family to retrieve what he could before the house was demolished.

After a brief introduction, John brought me into his children’s bedrooms and asked me to retrieve what I could. Never before have I felt more like an intruder as I sifted amidst the rubble, digging through the treasures of an eight-year old.

I looked up as John reentered the room and he poured forth his story to us.

John had just returned with his family from his mother’s funeral when he first heard of Katrina. He further explained that the family had lost their homes just seven years earlier in a fire. For a moment he confessed he didn’t know how much more he could take. As I dropped my head, he lifted his, surveying the damage. “But you don’t kill yourself over stuff,” he said. I’m not sure if John will find his happy ending as he faces mounting debt, insurance battles and family struggle, but I know that in that one comment, he taught me the best lesson in my four years at UR.

Friday, March 17, 8:29 p.m.

We are driving to New Orleans after an exhausting and empowering week. I would not have spent my spring break any other way. I have the tan of Jamaica, and the fun of Florida.

I’m also taking some distinctly different things back to Rochester. I feel insistence down to my bones to plead for more help in the wake of Katrina. Biloxi is projecting eight years of relief work to repair the damage. I can’t help but wonder, what if it were my hometown? Would my government leave me stranded?

The people I have helped this past week have been nothing but grateful. I’m not sure I share their gratitude. In a nation as impressive as the U.S., eight years is simply too long to give back a home.

Sunday, March 19, 5 p.m.

After leaving New Orleans yesterday evening to head home, I feel confident that while the houses have been leveled and lives shattered, the community rebuilds in spite of the insurance battles and the politics of Federal Emergency Management Agency. As I walked down Bourbon Street Friday night, with green beads flying overhead for St. Patrick’s Day, I felt that not even a level-5 hurricane could take the heart out of Louisiana. They will rebuild, but they can’t do it without our help.

Despite my relief to return to the comforts of home, my contentment remains hindered by my concern. It is easy to forget the nameless thousands left homeless, to put out of our minds the pictures of debris and loss. It is difficult to disregard the hands you shook, the tears you shared and the hope you offered. It is impossible to ignore our responsibility to share in their burden.

Tanner can be reached at

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