St. Francis pupils help rebuild some of New Orleans

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When students and staff return to St. Francis Preparatory in Fresh Meadows this fall, there will be the inevitable question: What did you do this summer?

While no doubt some will regale classmates with stories about the beach or camping, 41 St. Francis students and staff will speak of community service trips to New Orleans and Detroit that altered their view on the world.

“There are all kinds of different personal transforma­tions,” said William Vogelson, the campus minister for service learning at St. Francis. “As a whole, there’s more of a general understanding of the place they’re in the world and country and what it means to be a responsible citizen. They’re making these tangible connections there’s a world outside of themselves.”

The 22 students and staff who traveled to New Orleans for one week in July worked on projects to make the city more environmentally friendly, such as installing energy-efficient light bulbs in homes; helping to fix up one of the branches of the public library; painting a school that will reopen for the first time since Hurricane Katrina this fall; and beginning to set up a health care clinic in the city’s 9th Ward, one of the areas hardest hit by the 2005 disaster.

In Detroit, 19 students and staff members worked in a food pantry in St. Gregory the Great, a church in the western section of the city. Individuals painted and restocked the pantry and helped to give out food during their week-long trip in early July.

Both the Detroit and New Orleans trips are part of the school’s Franciscan Immersion Experience program.

“The students were transformed by the people they met there,” said Vogelson, who attended the Detroit excursion. “They have a different idea of homelessness by interacting with the people who are homeless and seeing how that person got to that point in their life. There’s a name to the issue.”

The students who went on the trips will speak to their peers about the experiences over the course of the next year, school officials said. Those talks, officials hope, will both allow the individuals who went on the trip to remain connected to the experiences and inspire other students to embark on similar adventures in the future.

Queens Village resident Catherine Gordon, one of the 22 individuals who went to New Orleans, said she immediately fell in love with the idea of traveling to the Louisiana city when she heard another student describe the trip. Gordon went for the second year in a row this summer and said her time spent there has encouraged her to move to New Orleans after college and pursue a career in nonprofit work.

“It’s such a great experience,” said Gordon, who just graduated from St. Francis. “The residents are so welcoming.”

Gordon said she was still struck by the fact that four years after Hurricane Katrina, so much of New Orleans still needed work.

“Since I went the last two years, I could see the small differences that have been made and you see there’s been progress,” Gordon said. “But they still need help, especially in the lower 9th Ward. The lower 9th Ward is just gone.”

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 174.

Posted 6:29 pm, October 10, 2011
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