The Collegian
Friday, August 14, 2020

Service in New Orleans offers spring break alternative

Many University of Richmond students eagerly anticipate an exotic, beach spring break vacation. Or perhaps many are traveling down to New Orleans for the creme de la creme of college spring breaks: Mardi Gras.

But one group of Richmond students will forgo many stereotypical college spring breaks for one of service. The SEEDS Project (Students Engaging and Enacting a Dialogue on Service) will make its fifth annual spring break service trip to the New Orleans area.

The SEEDS Project, derived from the Collegiate Disaster Relief Team (CDRT), continues the tradition of volunteering in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, an area hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

But this year, the student-run organization has a theme of "Origins" and plans to examine the history of the places the group visits and the legacies left by Native American, white and black communities who live together in the multicultural region.

Senior Michael Rogers, the SEEDS Project's leadership chairman, said he had been involved on this service-learning trip since his sophomore year, and that he was excited to serve on the leadership team this year as the organization developed a new mission.

Rogers said the new mission explained that the group provided support and brought hope to marginalized communities, educated others regarding social injustices and built stronger communities.

"I personally have realized that I learn more from conversations than I do from reading books and the SEEDS Project is all about relationships and conversations," he said. "Our school has a lot of community-based learning programs, but none of them are student-run.

There are student-run service programs, but ours is the only student-run service learning program and it makes for a very educational experience."

Senior Haddis Tujuba, development chairman for SEEDS, said this year's trip would be his second. Tujuba explained that the CDRT was more of a relief organization, whereas SEEDS participants were there to learn about the region.

"One of the reasons I really enjoy SEEDS is because you are learning as you are helping people," he said. "You're not just there to clock 40 hours of community service over spring break. It is about how you are learning and by learning you can share that knowledge with other people."

Junior Katherine Schmidt, education chairwoman for SEEDS, said while people on the Richmond campus were often shuffling from class to class with multiple projects, SEEDS helped her think very intentionally about her community and how to foster conversations within the community.

Schmidt and Rogers said the group cared about the people and places they had helped for the past five years, and the group aimed to maintain these relationships from year to year.

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"I think the fact that we have been working with the same organizations for such a long time and have been very dedicated to maintaining those relationships, I think that speaks to a mutual appreciation and sense of respect that transcends just a relationship of convenience," Schmidt said.

The SEEDS Project focuses on sustainable communities, which will develop a community of support among students as well as mutually beneficial relationships among students, distant individuals and organizations.

Schmidt said that another component of making a sustainable community was the urban farming initiative.

"Making healthy foods available to communities is an important part of sustainability," she said.

The group will be doing a lot of manual labor, such as painting buildings, digging ditches and other hands-on volunteering, but there is an educational component this year as well.

Schmidt said that Westhampton College Dean Juliette Landphair recently hosted a workshop for the group to educate them about New Orleans geography and history.

Rogers said that another educational activity the group would participate in was a discussion led by Tulane University professor of criminology Peter Scharf, who is Richmond leadership studies professor Thad Williamson's father-in-law.

Rogers said that for the first half of the week, the group would be volunteering at the Dulac Community Center, a center for Native Americans of the Houma nation tribe, about one hour southwest of New Orleans, then it would return to New Orleans to work with the Lower Ninth Ward Community Center and Our School at Blair Grocery, which is a school, urban farm and educational place working to rebuild the Ninth Ward.

Junior Lauren Camuso, operations chairwoman, said that she was most excited for the chance to see the Mardi Gras day parades and celebrations and the community dinner in the Lakeview area of New Orleans, a section of the city which was destroyed by Katrina and later rebuilt by residents.

"Last year we were not in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, so it will be fun to see the city come to life during the celebrations," she said.

Camuso also said that all 22 participants would be driving down from Richmond together in vans, which was different from last year when some participants traveled by plane.

"I think this will add more bonding time and camaraderie to the trip," she said.

She said that the cost per student was $150, which included travel, food and lodging. The group received funding from the Office of Common Ground, Richmond College Student Government Association, the Office of International Education, and from Student Activities and Westhampton College Government Association through general SOBAC funds.

"We are also holding a fundraising event at City Limit Thursday night to try to get some more donations," she said.

The SEEDS Project will continue to foster the relationships planted in past trips by engaging with the origins of its hosts in the New Orleans area. The group will be able to learn from its hosts as well as enjoy the culture of the area during its ultimate celebration of life.

Contact staff writer Amelia Vogler at amelia.vogler@richmond.edu

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