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United Way Blog

The Silver Linings of Katrina and Rita

Stories of tragedy and triumph are seemingly everywhere on the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. I’d like to share another story here, one of silver linings to the storms. It is the story of young volunteers who’ve headed to the Gulf Coast to help, not just right after the storms, but every year since.

United Way launched its Alternative Spring Break (ASB) in the months following Katrina and Rita, asking college students to trade in their beach towels for tool belts and spend their spring break volunteering. Support from corporate, community and nonprofit partners has expanded from the Gulf Coast to communities across the nation. From San Francisco to New York, Biloxi, Miami, rural Tennessee, Washington, DC and many more places, college students gather during their spring break to build houses, teach healthy eating, boost job skills, mentor kids and serve in a myriad of other ways.

Since United Way ASB kicked off in 2006, we've had 4,200 students participate, 130,000 hours of volunteer service completed, and 15 communities positively impacted.

Volunteering -- for most anything -- helps young people put things in perspective. When they have a chance to talk and volunteer with people who’ve lived through a devastating storm and other challenges, it changes their own life, even as they volunteer to improve another’s. Take Brian Mezzi, for instance, who first participated in ASB in 2010, in Biloxi, helping people and nonprofit organizations struggling to rebuild after Rita. Later, after hearing about the Gulf Coast Oil Spill, he persuaded to friends come with him to help out again in southern Mississippi.

Many students over the years have made the commitment to volunteer long past their break, and some are making a career of it. Stephen Christie, a multi-year ASB alum went on to work at United Way of South Mississippi. He too credits United Way ASB with showing him the powerful impact that dedicated people can make through volunteering. There are many more wonderful stories about ASB experiences on our blog.

ASB volunteers gain new skills, make new friends, learn about important social issues and feel a sense of accomplishment by giving back. And rather than wishing they’d relaxed on a beach or caught up on sleep, participants say “We did not give up our spring break, we took advantage of it.Learn more about United Way ASB’s origins and impact, and about ASB projects planned for 2016.

The young volunteers who pitched in right after Katrina and Rita are well into adulthood now, no doubt continuing to make a difference in their own communities. I hope we never see clouds as dark as 10 years ago, but am encouraged and inspired by the many silver linings still being formed and standing with people in need today.