Student volunteers enjoy helping others in Calcasieu Parish

Published 8:58 am Friday, March 7, 2014

Instead of hanging out with friends or finishing the tail end of a vacation road trip, students from Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky., toiled away on a chilly, overcast day in Southwest Louisiana. And they were smiling.

The students hammered, nailed and painted away on a Magnolia Street house in need of a bit of attention. Elizabeth Jackson, a sophomore at Bellarmine, spent a large part of the morning working on the front porch. She was covered in paint and having the time of her life.

“I guess my hands are getting stronger,” she said with a laugh as she rubbed some of the stains caked on her palm. “They’re probably really strong now. They’re like Hulk hands.”

The student volunteers were spread out all over the outside of the house. A handful painted while others ripped down old wooden boards and measured, cut and applied new ones. Each group was intense in their work, but they were still seeming to have fun. For them, the entire trip was about more than just volunteering.

“One of the best things about this is the fact that we get to actually see and meet the people we’re helping,” Jackson said. “For example, at this house, the owner came out and spoke with us. He thanked us and told us how grateful he was. That’s a great feeling, and that’s really what makes all of this so special.”

As part of an initiative by local nonprofit Project Build a Future, the students spent the last few days working on houses like the one on Magnolia Street. Each year since 2007, Bellarmine, a Catholic university, has sent students to the Lake Area to improve the quality of life for local residents. It all began with Hurricane Rita and the corresponding recovery efforts.

For the students, just making it down to Calcasieu Parish took a lot of effort. Volunteers had to go through an application process that included an essay explaining why they wanted to go on the trip.

Camille Adams, a Bellarmine sophomore, said she heard about the trip through a school newsletter. After seeing where the volunteer work would take place and after researching Project Build a Future, she said she knew it was something she wanted to do.

“I hadn’t ever been to Louisiana before and that just added to it. I wanted to experience the culture here, and this seemed like the perfect mix of work and fun,” Adams said. “One of the other unique things about this is that you can actually see the progress. I’ve never been a part of something where you can see the changes. Usually, you just do the work and leave.”

The volunteers also get a chance to learn more about their fellow students. Adams and Jackson met their freshman year. In the time between then and now, they haven’t really forged a friendship. But Adams said that once they get back to school, things will be different.

“I met Elizabeth last year and we never really had a chance to get to know each other,” Adams said. “Now if I see her at school or in the cafeteria, I’ll make sure to go say, ‘Hey,’ or go sit with her. It’s made all of us closer.”

In the backyard, Jerry George Sr. was cleaning his barbecue grill. George is the owner of the house the students were working on, and grilling was just his way of saying thanks.

“God is good, man. My wife and I are blessed,” George said. “All of this was something that needed to be done. I’m grateful. And I figure since they’re working, I’ll be cooking. It’s a way to give back a little.”

Project Build a Future passed out notifications to the homeowners in the area saying that if any of them needed home improvements, to reach out to the nonprofit. George gathered the necessary materials and tools for the job and contacted the organization, hoping for some extra help. George’s wife, Earlslee, said it was perfect timing for them.

“Jerry has been having some knee problems, so it’s great to be able to get some help with this work,” she said. “We’re so happy and blessed with this. We really are.”(American Press Archives)

Lance Traweek / American Press