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Students experience life-changing spring break

April 04, 2008

The words “spring break” often conjure images of a week-long vacation on a sunny beach, far away from the stresses of college life. But, ask any of the seven ASU American Humanics (AH) students who completed service projects in New Orleans about their week away, and they’ll tell you that while they didn’t spend their time on a beach, this spring break is one they will never forget.

This next generation of nonprofit leaders spent seven days in New Orleans demolishing a 9th Ward nursing home; cleaning up the house and yard of New Orleans resident Norman Jackson, who is slowly rebuilding his life two years after fleeing Hurricane Katrina; and working with Audubon to restore the natural ecosystem of the wetlands.

Two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans, students were amazed to discover that some areas have yet to be touched by cleanup crews.

“The most memorable experience was gutting the old St. Margaret's assisted living facility,” said Megan Trombetta, Phoenix junior. “It was the first work to be done on the building since the storm. It was surreal. There was a calendar on the wall for August 2005. In the board room there was an evacuation plan written on the dry erase board. It was as if time had just stopped.”

Students were hosted in New Orleans by Operation Nehemiah, a faith-based nonprofit organization dedicated to mobilizing people toward creating a better world. Its motto is “rebuilding the walls of people’s lives,”—words that accurately capture the work they do in New Orleans.

“As a former ASU student, I was extremely delighted that the group decided to come to help us here in New Orleans,” said Fred Franke, director of Operation Nehemiah. “They are among more than 14,000 volunteers who’ve come to work with us here in order to help in the rebuilding process of New Orleans.”

Operation Nehemiah not only housed and fed the AH group, but also coordinated all the service projects for the students throughout the week.

“Operation Nehemiah was amazing,” said Caitlin Gizler, Phoenix senior, and president of the AH Student Association. “They have very few resources in terms of funding, staff, and space—they are struggling as much as the city—but their staff and regular volunteers are incredible. They are an organization I want to support for a very long time.”

Additionally, the group had the unique experience of working with the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition crew to rebuild a family’s home that was damaged by the hurricane. The episode aired on March 23 on ABC 15.

“After two and a half years, they still need so much help down there to bring the city back to its former glory,” said Stacey Freeman, AH senior program coordinator. “Having volunteers like the American Humanics students is invaluable to grass-roots nonprofit organizations like Operation Nehemiah. In just one week, we were able to impact the lives of so many people and truly make a difference.”

Gizler, like Freeman, was moved by her experience helping the people of New Orleans.

“This experience was beyond incredible for me,” said Gizler. “It truly changed me in one short week. It has helped me see even more how I can help create great changes in a community.”

Although their week of service is complete, these future nonprofit leaders know their work has just begun. Plans are already being made to return for more service.

"Experiential learning is a hallmark of the student experience in our programs," said Dr. Robert Ashcraft, director of ASU's Lodestar Center and professor of nonprofit studies in the School of Community Resources and Development. “The students in our American Humanics program do more than learn about issues in the classroom. They actively engage in learning experiences such as those made possible through their work with Operation Nehemiah. Our students gain as much from the experience as those they serve."

The mission of Arizona State University’s Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation is to help build the capacity of the social sector by enhancing the effectiveness of those who lead, manage, and support nonprofit organizations. As part of the College of Public Programs and in partnership with the School of Community Resources and Development, the Center provides knowledge and tools to build the capacity of nonprofit organizations, professionals, board members, and volunteers by offering research, technical assistance, workshops, conferences, classes, and capacity building programs. For more information, visit:



Amy Cox O’Hara,
ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation
Arizona State University
411 N. Central Ave.
Suite 500
Phoenix, AZ 85004