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Students lend helping hands in New Orleans

Royal Oak shows philanthropy down on the bayou

March 6, 2013

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Two teams of students pose for a photo after clearing a site in Louisiana during midwinter break. Each site was a different house that was rotting, moldy and in need of demolition following Hurricane Isaac last August. About 68 Royal Oak students and a group of 97 total made the trip Feb. 17-23.

ROYAL OAK — While some students enjoyed their extra few days off in February playing video games or taking a road trip Up North during midwinter break, others headed to Louisiana to volunteer their time.

About 97 local students — 68 from Royal Oak High School, 11 from Farmington High and eight from Southfield-Lathrup High — traveled to Plaquemines Parish, La., Feb. 17-23 to work with the National Relief Network to provide Hurricane Isaac disaster relief. Located about 66 miles southeast of New Orleans, Plaquemines Parish was heavily damaged during Hurricane Isaac from Aug. 28 to Sept. 1, 2012, and there were still many areas that had not been cleaned up in the months since the tropical storm.

Steve Chisnell, a ROHS English teacher and Interact Club advisor, said the storm damaged the region surrounding New Orleans more than the city itself, so much of their focus was in Plaquemines Parish or near Fontainebleau State Park, where the students stayed about 39 miles north of New Orleans.

“It hit the area north and south of New Orleans for three days. (Hurricane) Katrina came in, hit everyone and left,” Chisnell said. “The (homes) we saw were a full 8-10 feet underwater for several days. When we got into these, some hadn’t been touched for four or five months.”

Items that had been floating around during the flooding sat where they landed when the waters subsided. With the property owners on-site, they were able to help identify keepsakes to be salvaged. In many cases, the residences needed to be torn down due to mold and rotting from the water damage.

“We saw stage-seven mold, where you physically see the timber rotting away,” Chisnell said. “If they built a house on that, you wouldn’t have a house for more than a few years before it would collapse on it. The best thing we can do is clean off this property and salvage so you can build (up new).”

The group of students split into four groups and took care of five houses, one fort and the state park during the trip.

“We went to a few different houses. We split up to groups of about 25 kids and went to different sites,” said ROHS senior Dagney Gossett, 17. “We decided to tear down the house with our bare hands and figure out what could be reused to build a new house.”

Gossett said she chose to go on the trip for the first time after hearing about it for years, and she is glad she did.

“I had always heard about it and wanted to go. I want to help people,” Gossett said. “We also met each homeowner and they were very grateful for what we were doing. I suggest it to everybody to do once. It’s kind of life changing.”

ROHS students have done seven trips during the past six years to help hurricane-relief groups. They traveled to Alabama in 2012.

“Royal Oak’s been doing this for a while,” Chisnell said. “We brought Farmington and Southfield along to pilot their programs and hopefully they’ll return next year. We get used to having somewhat of a comfort where we are.

“What I do is very important, but there’s no classroom education that can teach this. It’s not the same as being connected to real people and helping real people. I think service is a big part of that. It helps them to realize that giving is also receiving.”

The 97-person group, which was chaperoned by ROHS alumni and adults that even included Board of Education members Michael Hartman and Marty Cardamone, was the largest that Chisnell has ever taken on a relief trip, topping the previous high of 72 people. He said that philanthropy helps build character.

“They’re doing it because it’s their choice,” Chisnell said. “Every trip is very different. When you put that many people on one site, you get a lot done. It turned them into such a positive source on the worksites. (Gossett) charged into it with a working spirit I had never seen.”

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