The Lower Ninth Ward is a long way from Cancun, South Padre Island, or the other usual spring break hotspots. And for the nine Harvard students and two chaperones who spent last week in New Orleans, that was exactly the idea.
The trip, led by Harvard’s Hillel House, was an example of what some colleges around the country call “alternative spring break.”
“It’s an opportunity to do service somewhere, either in your community or someplace within the United States, or even internationally,” said Hillel Student Activities Director Paige LaMarche. “It gives the students the opportunity to learn and to give back as much as possible.”
The group spent their days working at Our School at Blair Grocery, a unique community farming initiative at the corner of North Roman and Benton Streets. In the afternoons and evenings, “in addition to having some fun, we do group reflections and thinking about some of the issues facing this society,” said Hillel Associate Rabbi & Jewish Educator Getzel Davis, “and [about] ways we can bring back what we’ve been inspired to do here back into Boston.” At night, the crew bunked down at Camp Hope, a volunteer base camp in St. Bernard Parish.
“I think just being here, being in this town, has been very eye opening for all of us,” said third-year student Samuel Fisher, a native of Newton, Massachusetts. “Also, seeing the contrast between spending our days on the farm and being surrounded by produce all the time, and then the minute you step off the farm, if you go to some of the smaller grocery stores or the kind of things that are being advertised, it’s almost all fried food, alcohol and junk food. It’s very striking.”
“I guess what I found eye opening would be learning about the inequality, the gap between the rich and the poor in New Orleans and just the reality of Lower Ninth Ward,” said second-year Jenny Fung, a native of Queens who celebrated her 20th birthday on the trip. “I’ve heard about it but never really learned about the real stories here.”
“It’s really cool to be able to show off my city, but also to learn at the same time, to clarify my Katrina story in comparison to the Katrina stories that are here,” said first-year Brooke Bourgeois, the lone New Orleans native in the group. “And it’s kind of nice for them [the other Harvard students] to have a person that can be like, ‘Hey, turn right on this street’.”
For the students, getting their hands dirty was the perfect break after months of studying.
“I love the farm,” said first-year Talia Rothstein, also a native of Massachusetts. “It’s a lot of fun just to be on it and to work on it and to get to see it in action.”
“What was probably the most fun for me was the composting,” said Fisher. “They like to put coffee grounds on top of the vegetables – I think it’s to mask it from insects and from other animals. One day they brought the truck over and the whole back of the truck was filled with used coffee from one of the local coffee shops, and we just took our shoes off, rolled our pants up and got right into it.”
Yet they’ve still managed to see some of the sights, Lamarche said, visiting Frenchman Street and Mardi Gras World, as well as the French Quarter for some beignets and pralines.
They also enjoyed a dinner at the home of Richard and Linda Friedman (full disclosure: the author’s parents), catered by Casablanca Restaurant and featuring some delicious brisket.
For more information on Our School at Blair Grocery, visit www.schoolatblairgrocery.blogspot.com.