CEO Note: New Orleans Service-Learning Trip

Melissa Neeley

At the beginning of this month, I was able to accompany our current class of the Ryan Nece Foundation’s Student Service Program to New Orleans for a service-learning trip.

As some of you may know, we traveled to Southwest Florida for last year’s trip – a location we chose because of how close Hurricane Ian hit close to home. With no major natural disasters nearby this past calendar year, we decided to travel back to New Orleans, so our students could see firsthand the long-term impact a storm like Hurricane Katrina could have on a city.

Serving New Orleans

During our four-night trip, our 19 students and five chaperones were able to partner with six (6) different nonprofit organizations. Collectively, we provided more 450 service hours to the New Orleans community. The long-term impacts of Hurricane Katrina were felt at many of our service locations, and even during our fun outings.

One of our fun outings included visiting Jackson Square – not only to get beignets from Cafe Du Monde, but to visit The Presbytere Museum, which overviewed the history of Hurricane Katrina and Mardi Gras. At first, these New Orleans topics seemed like opposites to me, but by going through the museum, I realized Mardi Gras was the hope the people of New Orleans needed to survive Hurricane Katrina. In the museum, you were able to listen to phone calls, interviews, testimonies from Hurricane Katrina survivors. They detailed accounts of being stuck for days in their attics or on their roofs, sharing one bottle of water between four people.

As we served at different service sites, we learned about how the Broadmoor community came together to save their neighborhood after Katrina and how families are still not back in their homes 19 years after the storm. I lived in Houston during Hurricane Harvey and saw the lasting impacts of a storm firsthand, but it’s hard to imagine and remember the impact can actually span decades.

The Student Experience

This trip was about allowing these students to experience a community outside of their own, showing them how New Orleans is addressing regular community needs, while also navigating recovery from a natural disaster and preparing for future natural disasters. It was powerful to see our students bond over their love of community service and watching them overcome different tasks and challenges as a team. Some important lessons our students learned:

  • Even 19 years later, people are still trying to rebuild their homes and lives following Hurricane Katrina. So many people (even retirees) lost everything and had to start completely over.
  • Our temporary discomfort is nothing compared to the permanent discomfort some of these survivors have endured. Being uncomfortable is just one step towards being comfortable.
  • Be empathetic towards people, not sympathetic.
  • Getting to know others outside of your network reminds us how we all share many common threads.
  • New Orleans is one of the most vibrant cities in the United States – maybe even in the world.
  • Coastal erosion is something impacting the Louisiana coastline, and Florida is next. There are tangible things we can do now to help. Each mile of coastline restored equals one less foot of storm surge during major storms.

Reflecting on the Trip

I am very fortunate to have visited New Orleans so many times that I can no longer count them on two hands. Living in Houston for eight (8) years, you become friends with so many people who hold New Orleans close to their hearts – many because they evacuated the city after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It’s a special place – the culture, the people, the food. But I had never served there before, and being able to give back to a city that has given me so much was powerful.

Being with our students makes me incredibly hopeful for the future of our world: One where we have leaders who are inclusive, service-minded, and educated on how they can use their skills, talents, and platforms to make our communities stronger. In our nightly debriefs, each student had a different takeaway from the day, and that reminds me of the importance of these trips. Thank you to every person who made this trip possible – from our chaperones and donors to the nonprofit partners we worked with. You are helping to spread the #powerofgiving mindset!

I encourage you to read the student blogs from our trip:

New Orleans Service-Learning Trip: Day 1 Recap

New Orleans Service-Learning Trip: Day 2 Recap

New Orleans Service-Learning Trip: Day 3 Recap

New Orleans Service-Learning Trip: Day 4 Recap

Founder Note: New Orleans Service-Learning Trip

Director Note: New Orleans Service-Learning Trip


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