TOWNSEND -- For 43 North Middlesex Regional High School students, a February vacation trip to New Orleans became the trip of a lifetime.
Every year since Hurricane Katrina devastated the region, teacher and service learning advisor Raymond Kane has led a group of students to Louisiana to rebuild houses, sort donations food and connect with people who were affected by the tragedy.
But for the many of the students, the personal impact was just as great as the work they were doing.
"It changes your life," said senior Matt White, also one of the program's coordinators. "It made me realize what I want to do in life and that I want to do something to give back, like maybe human rights law."
Junior Marie Shepherd went on the trip for the second time this year because of the impact it had on her last year.
"I didn't expect it to be as much fun as it was, but you create relationships that are life-changing and long-lasting," Shepherd said.
About 90 people applied for the 8-day program this year, going through a rigorous application process that included essays and teacher approvals. The program is open to any sophomore, junior or senior in the school.
But rather than just going on an isolated trip, the students chosen to participate in the service learning group commit to 10 months of fundraising and service in the lead-up to New Orleans.
"We could certainly just send people down there, but I don't think it would have as much power if we didn't prepare for it. I think it's important to learn about each other before the big experience," Kane said. "During that 10 months, we look at what's going on in the world and how can we impact that stuff here and on a greater level down in New Orleans."
Students use that 10-month period to volunteer twice a month at local organizations, like food pantries Townsend Ecumenical Outreach and Pepperell Aid from Community to Home. They also do team building activities to build trust and camaraderie.
On the eve of their departure, Kane said, the students were given the task of breaking a board with their hand. Each student was successful.
Once in New Orleans, students worked eight to nine hours a day at sites that included Animal Rescue New Orleans, Greenlight New Orleans, the United Houma Nation, Our School at Blair Grocery, Second Harvest Food Bank and United Saints Recovery Project.
Whether the task was painting, tiling, building a porch or digging a crop field, the students stepped up to learn how to do the work. And although most of them had no experience in building housees, Kane said they brought a level of professionalism to all of the work that they did.
"People just did what they needed to do," Kane said. "It didn't matter if they didn't know how going in, they had a great attitude about everything."
After a day of work, the students gathered each night to reflect on their experiences.
"They get pretty deep. By the end you can see how much trust there is between everyone in the group," Kane said.
In addition to nightly reflections, the students chronicled their adventures on a blog, where phrases like "changed my life" and "new family" are not uncommon.
Senior Samantha Meehan said that the experience bonded the group into a family.
"We clearly do a lot of work for both our communities here and in New Orleans, but we're being changed a lot too," Meehan said.
Senior Elizabeth Byrne said she felt supported by everyone on the trip.
"If you make a mistake in school, you get points and maybe cry. If you make a mistake there, there's always someone willing to help you fix it. It's such a positive atmosphere," Byrne said.
The trip provided a chance to connect and build relationships for senior Hannah Britten.
"High school is this hierarchy of social class and you find where you fit. I've always been kind of a misfit, but this group made me feel like I had a place where I fit," Britten said.
Kane said that as an observer of the student interactions on the program, he agreed with everything his students said.
"All the walls and marks they put on melt away and very quickly, everybody's with each other. It's almost a mini-Utopia," Kane said.
Those interested in reading more about the students' journey can do so at www.nolaservicelearning2014.blogspot.com.
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