HPAC Magazine

News Feature: From The Rock To New Orleans

Trades students help rebuild hurricane-ravaged communities.

October 1, 2014   By PATRICK CALLAN

It has been nine years since hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, LA with wind speeds reaching 175 m/h. In its wake, 1836 people were killed, millions were displaced and property damage was placed at $81 billion. While the mainstream media has long since moved on, a small group of engineering students and skilled trades apprentices from Newfoundland has not forgotten about the plight of those who are still struggling to rebuild their communities, nearly a decade later. 

Every spring for the past six years, the Together by Design team has traveled more than 4200 kilometres from Newfoundland to New Orleans to volunteer on reconstruction projects. The student volunteers, apprentices and their mentors come from Newfoundland’s Memorial University, Carpenters Millwright College and UA Local 740 Plumbers and Pipefitters Training Centre. Together by Design co-founders, Darlene Spracklin-Reid, who teaches engineering at Memorial University, and John Oates, president of Skills Canada Newfoundland and Labrador, started the organization in 2009 so that students could get the experience of “service learning,” which combines classroom teaching with community service.

“I wanted to bring an opportunity to my students to be able to learn about the benefits of volunteering, but also to use their skills to give back,” said Spracklin-Reid. Before becoming an engineering teacher, she worked for 10 years as a construction manager and admits she was unprepared for the realities of working in the trades. “You really need to work hand-in-hand with your trades people. They’re the ones who really provide you with the guidance you need,” explained Spracklin-Reid.

Two of the 10 students who took part in this year’s trip to New Orleans from April 26 to May 10 were plumbing apprentices. They were able to use the skills they learned at school and put them into practice under the guidance of a journeyman plumber. The rest of the group was made up of students with various skills, such as engineers, carpenters and electricians. “They’re all learning from each other and then learning about the benefits of giving back as well,” said Spracklin-Reid.

One of the projects plumbers worked on this year was a rundown homeless shelter where sinks were not working, showers needed caulking and several drains were plugged. Although it sounds like remedial work, Spracklin-Reid noted that the tasks were things that no one knew how to do or was going to do.

Spracklin-Reid recalls plumbing student Matt Myers saying that he had never seen that level of poverty, and he was upset he could not do more because of their limited time and resources. Another plumber, Justin Blanchard, who had recently lost a few people close to him in tragic accidents, said the volunteer experience brought a sense of happiness back into his life because he was able to help others through tough times. “You get more out of volunteering than you ever put into it,” added Spracklin-Reid.

Together By Design has worked extensively with the Annunciation Mission over the years, which houses volunteers in New Orleans. In addition to plumbing repairs, students have done foundation work, rebuilt sections of homes, installed 70 feet of sewer pipe (including digging the hole), and replaced sidewalks, washrooms and drain lines.

The biggest asset Together By Design brings with them is their knowledge of a range of skilled trades. While many student groups volunteer in New Orleans, doing things like painting and picking up garbage, the Together by Design team can help with some of the more advanced construction projects.

“We’re still one of the only groups that goes down there that brings people with skills,” commented Spracklin-Reid.

The bulk of the projects they have worked on have been in New Orleans’s Broadmoor area, which is now about 85 to 90 per cent recovered from hurricane Katrina. “But there’s still plenty of work to be done in New Orleans,” noted Spracklin-Reid.

Next year’s spring trip coincides with the tenth anniversary of hurricane Katrina. Spracklin-Reid is hoping many of the students who volunteered in previous years will come back for a big reunion trip, which could focus on helping a veteran in need. 

For 2016, Spracklin-Reid would like to do an exchange program, where students who are studying trades in New Orleans would come up to Newfoundland to work on a project, and then they would all head down to New Orleans to work on another one.

“Every geographical region has different ways to do their work. It’s a pretty valuable experience for everybody,” said Spracklin-Reid. For more information about Together by Design visit www.togetherbydesign.ca.

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