Helping Hands and More

Share Button

The Penn community is a global one, but the Gazette’s editorial operation is mostly desk-bound. Unless a story is centered here on campus (and sometimes even then), we’re likely to cover it by phone and email. A lot of the time, it seems to me, this works pretty well and is the best use of our limited staff and resources, but there are certain stories that cry out for a little more in the way of immediacy and atmosphere.

The tale of Penn’s ongoing commitment in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region to aid in recovery efforts from Hurricane Katrina is one of these stories, certainly. That’s why I jumped at the idea when senior editor Samuel Hughes mentioned that he and his wife Pat were contemplating spending their teenage sons’ spring break doing community-service in the New Orleans area and did I think it would be worthwhile to combine that with some on-the-scene reporting about the University students, faculty, and staff volunteering there. Our cover story, “Bridges to the Gulf,” is the result. (Sincere thanks to Pat, Tristan, and Jesse—I hope you got as much out of the experience as the magazine did.)

I had already heard something about Penn’s helping hands in the Gulf from Fox Leadership Professor John J. DiIulio C/G’80. Around the same time, Sam had been speaking with School of Social Policy and Practice Dean Richard Gelles. When we figured out that the efforts the two of them were describing weren’t the same thing, but parallel programs—different toes, as it were, of Penn’s “footprint” in the Gulf—the unusual scope of the University’s commitment became clear.

Three years after Katrina, the progress of recovery can be described as spotty at best, even in New Orleans itself. “Spend your time in the usual tourist haunts—the French Quarter, the Garden District—and you’d think the city is pretty much back to normal,” Sam told us after after he got back. “Venture a little farther out to, say, the Seventh Ward and things will look a little rougher—abandoned houses with caved-in roofs spewing surreal quantities of vines next to new Katrina cottages and fixed-up residences.” And in the Lower Ninth Ward, “most of the housing is simply gone, replaced by scruffy grasslands and weeds and concrete slabs that once supported houses.”

In Mississippi’s Hancock County the damage was even more widespread, much less noticed by the media, and came on top of a long history of poverty and government neglect. One resident of Pearlington, Mississippi, who now runs the recovery center where Sam and his family spent five days volunteering, told him about spending months living in a tent while waiting for a FEMA trailer, fighting the mud and the stench, the bugs and the heat, while trying to get his house cleared of debris and rebuilt.

The work being done by volunteers in these places from schools across the University, under a variety of groups and sponsors, ranges from basic construction and engineering assistance; to dental and health screenings; to providing a sympathetic, trained ear; to helping to create the plans that will direct the path of recovery in the future. And while many institutions outside the Gulf peaked in their commitment in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, Penn’s is growing. There were more students in the Gulf in Spring 2008 than in previous years, and the Fox Leadership program is sponsoring 15 10-week internships this summer, for example. One proposal being floated calls for a kind of “semester abroad” service program in the region.

All in all, it’s easy to see why Richard Gelles says, “as an academic in administration, this is probably the most tangible thing I’ve ever been involved in,” and John DiIulio calls it his “proudest moment as a Penn guy.”

—John Prendergast C’80

Share Button

    Leave a Reply