USCA students devote their fall break to Katrina repairs

SUBMITTED PHOTO A total of 44 USC Aiken students traveled to New Orleans during a fall break recently. They spent four days working on a house that continues to have substantial needs 10 years after Hurricane Katrina struck the city.

When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and many other cities in 2005, Josh Capers was an elementary school student.

A decade later, the needs in New Orleans still remain. Now a USC Aiken student, Capers joined 43 other undergraduates and two chaperones from the Student Life office during fall break – working on a house that continues to require extensive work.

“I didn’t fully understand what had happened when I was 10,” said Capers, an elementary education major. “Now I feel more empathetic to this cause. I got to meet a lot of people walking on the street (in New Orleans). It warms your heart that people appreciated what we were doing.”

Matt Torres, the interim Student Life assistant director, coordinated the event in conjunction with the Habitat for Humanity organization in New Orleans. Previously, Torres had taken part in fall break twice as a USCA undergraduate. On the recent trip, he and the students put up siding for a house north of the city. There has been progress since his earlier missions to New Orleans, Torres said. The group members had seen chained-off fences where only foundations of low-income family homes could be seen. Still, years of work will continue

“My philosophy is that this is one of the worst natural disasters in our lifetime,” Torres said. “The students were giving up their break, when they could have gone home or someplace else. Instead, we worked hard and got to experience New Orleans, too, on Bourbon Street one night.”

Such generosity runs in the Torres family. Matt’s sister, Christina took part in the trips before she graduated. Their younger sister, sophomore Cathie, joined Matt on the recent venture.

“I was so surprised,” she said, “that the houses would still be in that shape, still boarded up. I just felt I wanted to help, to give back to that community and see it first-hand.”

Now a junior, Capers hopes to teach fourth grade. He would like to bring his experiences to the children.

“Through that, they can understand more, seeing some of the real world,” he said. “They are never too young to start learning.”

So many communities and counties in South Carolina were hard hit by the unprecedented storms a few weeks ago. Matt hopes to take students to areas in the state as the need continues to rise – possibly next spring.

The fall break participants stayed at a Methodist church during their New Orleans project. Matt was touched when he talked with a church coordinator there.

“She wants to help with the relief process here,” he said.

Rob Novit is a general news and features reporter for the Aiken Standard. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.