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Brenau students spend spring break swinging hammers in New Orleans
Bill Lightfoot, dean of Brenau University’s school of business and mass communication, walks with a ladder with students Shinwoo Lee and Gina Gee while helping to build a house in New Orleans during spring break. - photo by Photos for The Times

While some of their classmates were soaking up the sun in tropical locales, a dozen students from Brenau Academy and Brenau University spent their recent spring break giving someone else a new home.

The students spent a week in New Orleans helping to build a house with Habitat for Humanity and now can add experience with a hammer to their resumes.

"We went there last year through the St. Bernard Project, but we changed to Habitat for Humanity this time," said Kristina Rhoades, the director at Brenau’s radio station, WBCX-FM, who also helped organize the trip.

She said less than half of the homes in the city have been fixed, years after Hurricane Katrina hit the city. The students were able to visit the home they helped rehab last year, and even though the neighborhood had improved, there were still houses with spray-painted X’s denoting how many people or animals had been rescued.

It has been five years since Hurricane Katrina blew through the New Orleans area, bringing with it a storm surge that flooded entire sections of the city. And the Brenau students said they were happy to spend their time building it back.

"I think it’s a good trip when you get to do service learning," said Bianca Poindexter, a freshman at Brenau University. "I like doing a lot of community service, and I know how great the need was in New Orleans. I had been there previously so it was nice to go back and see how it had changed. And being able to go back and fix some of the problems was very nice."

The students slept on air mattresses in a nearby church, sharing just a few bathrooms and waking up at the crack of dawn to start their construction jobs. Because they were working for Habitat for Humanity on this trip, they worked on a house that was being built from the ground up. On the week they arrived, they were putting on siding, roofing and painting the outside of the house.

But forget about swinging the hammer — the biggest learning curve for most of the students was getting up a ladder to nail in siding and roofing.

"I wanted to do it, but going up that ladder ... that was hard," said Monique Simon, a sophomore at Brenau University. "You totally step out of your comfort zone."

Others noted that working with Habitat for Humanity was a learning experience in itself. Because houses are built on a 12-week cycle, each team moves in and out only seeing a certain part of the work that’s done. But luckily for the Brenau students, their time at the house let them take it from a plywood shell to a residence covered with shingles and painted siding.

"It’s really neat seeing the organization of this organization, Habitat," said Amber Rickman, a junior at Brenau Academy. "To them it’s like a 9-to-5 job and it happens to be building houses with nonprofessional people. (They’re saying) no no, this is what you have to do."

All 12 of the Brenau students agreed their time spent during spring break to help others was well worth the mere $500 they spent. They were able to see New Orleans in the evenings and still felt like they went on vacation — they just did some hard work during the day, rather than lying on the beach.

It also gave them a new perspective on their lives back in Gainesville, said Julissa White, a junior at Brenau University.

"The best part, though, was getting a new pair of eyes," she said. "Because you go to New Orleans and you build these houses with a bunch of strangers, you’re communally living, you’re communally eating, you’re communally everything."

But then you return home, she said, and suddenly something like the shower head on your shower being broken isn’t such a big deal, because after you’ve shared a space with 12 other women, you’re happy just to have your own shower.

"That was the most rewarding part after the fact — getting a new idea of how to look at things," White said. "My world seemed less hectic."

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