Students make a difference in ravaged New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS — Seventy-eight Marquette students participated in the MARDI GRAS service trip over spring break in the Big Easy. Many visited the area for the first time, while others took part in their second, sixth, or even 10th excursion.

But for two former Marquette students, serving the people and communities of New Orleans has become a way of life.

Nick Karel and Sara Soriano were part of the first MARDI GRAS service trip in the fall of 2006, one year after Hurricane Katrina displaced thousands of families and led to 1,836 fatalities.

Today, they both live and work in the city full time.

Karel’s path to NOLA

Karel studied biological sciences at Marquette with the intention of attending medical school after graduation, but he never declared a major.

He was one of 15 students who participated in the inaugural MARDI GRAS trip. Karel described it as an “incredibly beautiful, yet tragic experience.”

He vividly recalls a story of removing an antique chest from one man’s ravaged home.

“It was full of Mardi Gras beads, photographs and memories from his life,” Karel said. “He looked at us and said, ‘You’re just wheeling my life away.’”

“That really hit us all at home, deep at the core,” Karel said. “I knew I had to come back.”

He returned 11 more times during his Marquette career.

In the fall of his senior year, Karel studied abroad in El Salvador. The experience was a 180 degree difference from the “cold, hierarchical and lecture-based” science courses at Marquette, he said.

He applied to the Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina in Havana, Cuba. The six-year medical program trains students from Central and North America to work in low-income areas upon graduation.

In January 2009, he dropped out of Marquette — eight credits short of graduating — and departed on a six-month road trip to Central America.

Needless to say, his parents were not particularly pleased.

“They said, ‘You’re crazy! What are you thinking?’” Karel said.

In August 2009, he moved to New Orleans and began work with Common Ground Relief, an independent, non-profit that was started within three days of Katrina.

In addition to rehabilitating homes for hurricane victims and working to restore area wetlands, Common Ground offers legal services, job training and community gardens to those in need. Their work is largely concentrated in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the city’s poorest and most storm-damaged areas, but reaches all corners of the city.

Karel works six days a week and carries two cell phones to keep pace with his workload. He said his daily interactions and participation in the “communal experience” keeps him motivated.

“Charity becomes a shallow word — it’s really about solidarity,” he said. “It’s not about us helping them out, but rather an equal exchange.”

He was accepted to ELAM and intends to begin classes this August.

Soriano’s newfound responsibility

Soriano graduated from Marquette as a sociology major and biology minor in May 2009. She was Marquette Student Government vice president her senior year.

Before traveling to New Orleans, she had little knowledge of the city or the “blight and destruction” caused by Katrina.

“I was shocked and disappointed in myself for not knowing more about the situation,” she said. “At the end of the week, they’re still living in a gutted-out house and I’m going home.”

The city’s condition and a newly-found sense of responsibility motivated Soriano to return for a total of 11 MARDI GRAS trips.

“We were the adults. There were no teachers and no chaperones, I was the one making an impact,” she said.

Soriano said the trips provided her with her first true taste of adult life. That experience, along with the beautiful city and needy residents prompted her decision to move to New Orleans in August 2009.

She now works as a volunteer coordinator at the Lower Ninth Ward Village — a community-based group that provides resources aimed at uniting and improving the community, Soriano said.

“It’s important to keep community members involved in leadership roles,” Soriano said. “We help people see their ideas fulfilled.”

Ward “Mack” McClendon, executive director of the Village, said 75 percent of the Lower Ninth Ward community is still displaced.

After Katrina, McClendon had lost faith in the government and humanity in general.

“I was seriously devastated. I had very little, if any, hope,” he said.

However, volunteer efforts over the past five years have given him a new perspective. He would hate to think of what New Orleans would be like today without the efforts of volunteers, McClendon said.

“Nothing can move faster than people helping people,” he said.