By Matt Lynch
TOWNSEND — Their efforts could only have so much impact in an area of the country that is still in dire need of assistance, but for 24 students it was time and energy well-spent, and it left a permanent mark.
Participants in the North Middlesex Regional High School Community Service Learning Trip to New Orleans, La., appeared before the School Committee to discuss what they did and what they learned during one week in July. To hear those who made the trip tell it, they saw more than enough to last a lifetime — and they want to go back for more.
Foreign language teacher Raymond J. Kane came up with the idea for the trip, but he gave all the credit to the 24 students that traveled to the 9th Ward in New Orleans. The group, including two parental chaperones, spent 1,147 hours and 30 minutes helping to undo as much of Hurricane Katrina’s damage as they could in that span of time.
At the committee meeting, Kane introduced Abigail Clarke and Constance Rowse, the student co-leaders of the trip, who give an account of the journey. Kane set up a slide show of the students at work, and having a little fun, amidst the wreckage.
“We’re showing you some of the more goofy moments, because smiling is one of the most important things you can do there,” Kane said. “If you don’t, you can easily get overwhelmed by it all.”
Clarke and Rowse read a series of facts and figures about the trip to give the assembled committee and those in attendance just a hint of what they experienced. They spoke of the 23 feet of water that flooded the ward in just 30 seconds when Katrina struck. They mentioned New Orleans’ Good Neighbor Policy, which allows the city to seize property by eminent domain if a house is not boarded up or if the grass remains uncut.
The students said they gutted houses, de-mudded roads, cleaned out a rotting meat truck and fixed-up houses and buildings.
“I learned to spackle,” Clarke exclaimed.
The students praised the parent-chaperones, Sue Hamel and Gabe Cohen, and Kane for all they did, but Kane said the kids were the hardest workers of the bunch.
“This was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in my nine years as an educator,” he said. “We were working in Ground Zero, but these kids had to be pried off the work sites.”
“Every single kid put in 100 percent,” added Rowse.
The group showed off a pair of T-shirts, made to commemorate the trip. They read, “The extra mile is the least-crowded road on the journey of life,” and “Life is not about how much you can take, but how much you can give.”
Every member of the trip wrote a reflection on the week and three of them — Anna Rowse, Anna Makrianis and Steve Young — read from their submissions at the meeting with awe and reverence in their voices.
“Although we went down south to help, I think that we came out on the receiving end,” Anna Rowse read. “The people down there gave me more than I could ever ask for.”
“The first time I attempted to write this reflection, I just couldn’t finish,” Young recalled. “Looking back on the trip and rifling through my memories, I realized that every day I was down there I changed.”
“That much loss could cause one to go crazy,” Makrianis said, “but I have met some of the strongest, most loving people that have lived through the tragic storm.”
As they read, the slide show continued to flash scenes of devastation amidst the cleanup efforts. When the committee voted unanimously to allow the students to return to continue their work in 2008, the entire group applauded.
One slide showed a tour bus, driving past the hard-at-work kids, and Kane described the bus to the committee.
“You could pay $35 to take a tour of the destruction,” the teacher said. “We paid $700 a person to go down and help.”