NEW ORLEANS-Along with helping to rebuild houses during their spring break, Howard University students in New Orleans this week are also looking to help rebuild futures. Fourteen of those students began their weeklong journey to achieve just that Monday at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School.
But before they were sent into classrooms to elevate impressionable young minds, they sat in the library for a little history lesson given by principal Charlotte Matthew. The topic: just how much Hurricane Katrina devastated her school.
She told them of the eeriness of the three months after the storm, when there were no kids there to learn, no teachers there to teach. The school was turned into a military facility. She told them of the difficulties of being one of only two public elementary schools left in New Orleans since Katrina. There were 128 before. She told them the added pressures of her job, but at the end of the day there was no place she would rather be.
With those words, it was off to work.
In her visit to New Orleans, sophomore pubic relations major Brittany Clifton, 20, said it’s already been a life changing experience.
“We toured the Ninth Ward yesterday, and just seeing all the devastation and destruction that these people went through, and for these kids to be so happy and excited still, it brought tears to my eyes,” Clifton of Columbia, S.C., said.
Victoria Kirby, 21, is also visiting New Orleans for the first time, and said she has been impressed with the elementary students eagerness to learn.
“They’re really smart, and they do their best to stay focused on getting their education,” said Kirby, a senior majoring in speech and applied communications from Brandon, Fla.
The Howard students are there to interact, tutor and assist the kids to make sure they do their assignments for the given day. All 14 students will be there for the remaining days of their stay in New Orleans before returning to Washington, D.C., on Friday.
Kindergarten teacher Laurita Hymel said that more than helping her class, the mere presence of the Howard students in the school is something the kids needed.
“It’s good for these kids to see people who are young and look like them doing well, and giving their time to see that they do well,” Hymel said.
More than anything, she said this week is an opportunity for Howard students to take just as much knowledge home with them as they give to the kids.
“It’s good for Brittany too, because she needs to see that this is life that happened out here, and to see how these kids deal with it,” Hymel said of Clifton. “You can’t help but to feel good and want to do well when you’re around these kids who are so open, and even after Katrina they haven’t lost their hope.”
Shaking her head, searching for the words to describe the 5 and 6-year-old miniature adults playing in front of her without a care in the world, she simply said, with the smile of a proud kindergarten mother, “They’re one in a million.”
Thomas Warren is a graduating senior majoring in broadcast journalism at Howard University. He is from Inglewood, Calif.