ACE and Alternative Breaks 2012 in NOLA

J. Michael Cruz, director of the Dedman College Center for Academic-Community Engagement (ACE), is participating in the Alternative Breaks trip to New Orleans in December. Participants in the trip, which is co-sponsored by ACE and the office of Community Engagement and Leadership, are working with Youth Rebuilding New Orleans. You can follow the group on Facebook at

More opportunities to serve in Dallas and beyond

It’s been over a week since the ACE/AB trip working in NOLA. As I reflect on our five days of service, I have a message for those reading this blog.

For students: The opportunities to do meaningful service with the Alternative Breaks program at SMU are wonderful. During AB trips, students meet others they would perhaps not otherwise meet on campus. For example, on our trip we had a student from Meadows who did not know many students outside of the Meadows school; we had a first-year student; and we had a transfer student who had just started at SMU in August.

The AB program travels to some great locations – including NOLA, Los Angeles, Boston, Austin, Taos and NYC – and works with community service agencies dealing with important concerns such as poverty, hunger, homelessness, disaster relief, AIDS and affordable housing. Learn how to apply to the program here.

Students don’t have to leave town or commit a week, however. Through the Dedman College Center for Academic-Community Engagement (ACE) you can become involved in sustained engagement or in a one-time volunteer event. At ACE we have relationships with service agencies helping various populations in the Dallas area. And generally all of the agencies with whom we work are located within 10 miles of campus. ACE has opportunities including service learning courses, work-study, ACE fellowships, ACE/AB trips, and living at the ACE House. Learn about these opportunities on our website and Facebook page, where you can see photos of our service events.

So while the AB program deals with issues in areas beyond the city limits, ACE deals with all of those same concerns here in North Texas. And ACE has relationships with service agencies that greatly need the help and support of the SMU student community. Please get in touch if you would like to become involved: call 214-768-4852 or email me at

For faculty and staff: The Alternative Breaks program is a wonderful way to be engaged with students. The trips are student-organized and -run, so the faculty/staff adviser goes along for the ride and the service, and is present in case of emergency. The site leaders are SMU students who thoughtfully and carefully plan every activity.

ACE also is a resource for faculty/staff who are interested in connecting with a local agency to do service work. And for faculty who would like to add a service learning component to a course, there are sample syllabi on the ACE website as well as suggestions for how to manage this type of classroom requirement.

For community members reading this blog: Please know that we have a wonderful group of students, faculty and staff committed to creating positive change both locally and elsewhere. If there are needs within your agency or population, please contact ACE or SMU’s Community Engagement and Leadership Office. We would be happy to meet and discuss how we might be of service.

In closing, we are ACE, we are CEL, and we are SMU Dedman College – and we are here to help.

The ACE/AB team in New Orleans


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Our last day on the job

Our last day on the job

As usual, we started the day with Dan making pancakes for everyone at 8am, and then we were out the door by 830am to be on site by 9am.

Since we’ve been here for almost a week, we’re pretty much trained and are able to work well with minimal direction. (We’ve actually been on site for so long, we’ve even become accustomed to knowing where tools are in the house – so if someone is looking for a hammer or a nail gun or paintbrush, we know exactly where we’ve seen one last!)

With this being our last day we went right to work completing the tasks we were working on yesterday – measuring, cutting, installing, hammering, nailing, painting, deconstructing, etc.

Karissa painting baseboards

We split up into our same teams of two from yesterday. Emily and I measured walls for the cutting of quarter-inch round. Shauna and Danny were in charge of cutting the trim. Adam worked with Turk and Prince. Dan, Monica, and Karissa cut more wood for the exterior framing of windows. Anthony and Janice painted trim. Kimberly spent the morning caulking cracks between the baseboards and the wall.

We did this all morning and then took our normal lunch at noon to eat our sack lunches either in the van or in the warm sun. For our post-lunch treat we went back to the gelato place, Angelo Brocato, for some of their amazing dessert.

Monica cleaning the saws

For the rest of the day we finished doing what we had been – almost all of the installed trim was painted; Janice, Anthony, and Karissa helped with that. All of the caulking was completed by Kimberly. Adam put up sheet rock on the studs for the wall in the front room that Dan, Karissa, and Monica were working on yesterday. And all of the pre-installed trim was primed.

Various other tasks were completed, too, at some point during the day – Monica caulked around the outside windows and oiled/cleaned the table saws; Danny helped with the baseboard painting and also removed damaged siding from the back of the house; several of us cleaned paintbrushes; I painted pre-installed baseboard trim with Shauna and Emily; Emily installed baseboard trim with the nail gun, etc.

At the end of the day, we all felt quite accomplished. We were thanked by Mr. Leonard, Ryan, Prince, William, and Lauren for our work.

Emily, Shauna and J. Michael

After some pretty wonderful and silly photos we headed back to the hostel for a quick reflection. Tonight’s reflection consisted of asking students to document all of what they ate yesterday and then illustrate how much they think an average person living at the poverty line had to eat yesterday. They then discussed their drawings. The reflection posed the following questions:

  • What was your favorite service moment?
  • How will you use this trip in the future/What will you do with this trip? (This question addresses how students will utilize the service experience going forward).
  • Last, students were asked to write a letter to themselves about the experience here. They will turn in the letters, and AB Site Leaders intend to call us all back for a reflection in the spring and the letters will be discussed then.

Because tonight was the last night in town, students decided they wanted to eat at a restaurant and listen to live jazz. They selected a small outdoor café in the heart of the French Quarter named Café Biegnet, where we dined on red beans and rice, jumbalaya, muffaletta, and beignets. While we ate, the jazz player Steamboat Willie sang holiday music and old bluesy favorites.

After dinner we walked down Bourbon Street for several blocks in each direction before heading back to the van in order to reach the hostel early enough for everyone to pack. We plan to leave tomorrow at 630am to make a quick stop at Café Du Monde on our way out of town.

NOLA has been great, and YRNO does a fantastic job of both helping young people become involved with service and rebuilding their community, and with helping teachers/working adults move into homes they may not otherwise be able to afford. Personally, I feel this has been a great experience working with a group of students I didn’t know before and may never have in class. It has also been a wonderful opportunity to indicate to students how Dedman College, through ACE, is committed to service and engagement.

You can also follow ACE on Facebook.

What a feeling of accomplishment!

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A productive day and NOLA-style dinner

Hard at work

Day 5 with YRNO, and we spent it at the S. Salcedo Street house again. We basically got into the same groups we were in yesterday – Adam worked with Prince and Terrance on the exterior siding; Monica, Karissa, and Dan worked on the exterior as well with Mr. Leonard (who I found out used to teach Religion at the high school Ryan attended); the rest of us worked inside. Again, Shauna and Danny used the chop saw to cut quarter-inch trim to length; Emily and I took measurements for the needed pieces; Anthony and Janice spent the morning painting the quarter-inch round; Kimberly spent almost the entire day countersinking nails hammered into the baseboards yesterday.

We took a mid-morning break and chatted with Ryan for a while. I found out he is now 19 and has been with YRNO since he was in 7th or 8th grade. Gutting and rebuilding homes has been something he has done since middle school when Katrina came through New Orleans. Once again we worked diligently until noon when we broke for lunch and ate from our sack lunches. Immediately after lunch Monica fell asleep in the warm sun on the sidewalk, and several students took their lunchtime snooze on the van.

Janice and Anthony

Late in the morning we were joined at the house by two travelers from France! And during lunch we got to know a bit more about them. Opal is from Florida and has lived in Paris for five years. She moved there from NYC, and this was a vacation for her and her partner Bertrand. They were back in the US for 10 days this trip. (She mentioned they get eight weeks of vacation in France, and they come back to the US at least once per year.) Opal told us that she initially worked as an English teacher and currently works for the French government. I asked her reason for coming to NOLA on vacation and getting involved with service work, and she indicated wanting to make her vacation more meaningful with the service work.

After lunch, in the front of the house, Karissa, Monica, and Dan worked with Mr. Leonard to reinforce wall studs by adding wood to the existing studs. They also built the wall out by about a quarter of an inch. Once again, Adam worked with Prince and Terrance on siding, and the rest of us went back to completing the job of adding the quarter-inch round to the baseboards. With the painting completed, Janice took to nailing the finishing nails into the quarter-inch round. Anthony helped Mr. Leonard by cleaning paint brushes, and Opal and Bertrand were inside the house with us, caulking gaps between the baseboards and the wall.

Dan, Karissa, Adam, and Monica ended the workday with insulating the front room where they had been reinforcing the studs.

At 4pm we left the worksite and headed to a nearby park, where the students played a few rounds of Birdie on a Perch and Knights and Dragons. By about 5:30pm we were back at the hostel for showers and to get ready for dinner. Tonight we ate at Katie’s Restaurant. This is a small family-owned restaurant that was featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. Dan and Danny challenged themselves by eating their famous sandwich “The Barge.” We were all quite surprised when it showed up at the table (since the menu says it feeds two to four people) and it was about four feet long and overflowing with catfish, oysters, and shrimp.

The waitstaff also brought out a complimentary dessert and sang the birthday song to Dan since his birthday is on the 20th, when we leave NOLA.

We skipped reflection tonight since we’re all pretty much in a food coma. We’ve had a very busy and productive time working with YRNO, and after such an enormous and delicious meal we’re all ready for bed early.

You can also follow ACE on Facebook.


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Flood lines and hard work

Monica and Dan with the circular saw

Students made chocolate-chip pancakes for breakfast this morning, and then we headed to the S. Salcedo house by 9am. All of us worked on this one house – some inside and some outside, and we worked in teams of two.

I worked with Kimberly to install baseboards with a power nailer; Danny and Shauna were in charge of cutting the baseboards to size; and Janice and Emily were taking the measurements. On the exterior, Karissa and Anthony removed nails from the siding with Prince, Adam worked with Dhvante and Turk installing new siding, and Monica and Dan worked with one of the YRNO employees, Mr. Leonard, repairing existing siding.


We worked until noon and then ate our sack lunches in the van while William, the Executive Director, gave us a tour of the areas that experienced some of the more serious flooding. The tour included the Lower Ninth Ward, which was among the hardest hit during Hurricane Katrina. This is also the location of the homes built by the Make It Right organization, founded by Brad Pitt in 2007. These homes have the highest rating for being environmentally friendly. And in the Lower Ninth,  they were built for the former residents of the area who lost their homes. Last, while the neighborhood is dotted with homes, William said it’s not nearly as populated as it used to be.

While on the tour he shared various factoids about the impact that Katrina had on New Orleans , including: Only 10% of schools were undamaged by the storms; roughly about 40,000 homes were destroyed or majorly impacted (and they’ve been able to rebuild/repair about 10,000); and he told us that today, homeowners are fined for having visible waterlines on their homes/businesses. (Apparently the city will fine someone for not erasing/cleaning those off.)

We left our mark on the inside of a baseboard.

After the tour and lunch we helped unload sheetrock and wood from a truck, and then we went back to doing what we had been, before the break. Inside the house, the six of us working on baseboards were able to complete the entire back half of the house (the front half was already completed), and then Kimberly got busy sealing the seams between baseboard and wall with caulk.  Having the baseboards cut and installed, the rest of us inside framed out a fireplace.

This took the last four hours of our workday. At the end of the day it was nice to see the amount of work that we had completed. Ryan thanked us for our work and stated that what we did today would have taken him three days to do on his own. He was very grateful for our help.

Since we have dinner plans tomorrow and Wednesday, away from the hostel, tonight was our leftover night. At 630pm we gathered as a group on a picnic table outside and ate leftover spaghetti, pizzas, black beans, veggie burgers, tortillas, chips, chicken, and lots and lots of cheese. Students also cooked and ate a brisket left behind by some other hostel guests.

Our reflection took place at 8pm. We first drew a photo of our hand on a paper and with each finger answered the following questions:

  1. What new thing have we done on this trip;
  2. What have we done that we hope we never do again;
  3. What have we done that we would do differently;
  4. What lasting impression do we hope to leave;
  5. What have we done that we’re we grateful for.

This discussion was followed by three rounds of Catch Phrase.

You can also follow ACE on Facebook.

The group with William at the flood line

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A day off in the French Quarter

In Jackson Square

Day 3 in NOLA is Sunday, and this is our one day to tour the city and enjoy ourselves by taking in the sights rather than doing service. Some of the group headed off to church in the morning, and then by about 10am we were headed to the French Quarter.  Our first stop was Café Du Monde for some beignets and coffee.

Watching videos of Hurricane Katrina

After that we took a trip to the Louisiana State Museum in Jackson Square. This museum has a pretty extensive exhibit documenting what took place during Hurricane Katrina – from the levy breaks, to the emergency response, to the firsthand personal accounts. To see photos and watch video illustrating the extent of damage and devastation was heart-breaking. It makes our efforts with Youth Rebuilding New Orleans all the more real.

After the museum, students split off into smaller groups for about four hours of lunch and shopping in the French Quarter. Students purchased souvenirs and holiday gifts. At the end of the day the van carried back to the hostel: Mardi Gras masks, pralines, French Quarter street signs, New Orleans art, jewelry, beignet mix, clothing, pins, coffee mugs, and music. And while we had planned to head back to the hostel at 6pm, our time was cut somewhat short by a rainstorm.

Our communal dinner consisted of spaghetti and French bread, prepared by Dan and Monica. Two other students had kitchen-cleaning duties. After dinner and a 20-minute break, we had our reflection time, which consisted of an exercise called THEN/NOW. We wrote five words or phrases indicating what we thought of this trip prior to getting here and what we think of it now – after working for two days and visiting the museum. We closed with each of us writing a question that we feel remains unanswered, putting them in a bag, and then randomly drawing them out and discussing as a group.

After that it was lights out for our fourth day in town, and our third day at the worksite.

You can also follow ACE on Facebook.

Beignets and coffee

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Preparing a house for its new owner

At the house on Salcedo

On day 2 we were split between two houses. Three students stayed at the house we worked on yesterday – the house on S. Salcedo Street. These three were helped by two different shifts of NOLA Jesuit HS students; one group of about seven came from morning until lunch, and then another group came from noon until the end of the day.

The eight of us who went to a different house were working on cleaning and make-ready. This house was a duplex where the homeowner will live in one unit while renting the other one out in order to help pay the mortgage.

We primarily cleaned up the rental unit – touching up paint, painting crown moulding, sweeping dust out of cabinets, spackling holes, cleaning construction dust off of virtually every surface, scraping paint from windows, etc. I spent the morning touching up the exterior paint and the afternoon cleaning a bathroom.

The particular house we worked on is at 428 S. Olympia – here are before and after shots. The change is dramatic.

The house on Olympia before; in a photo from Google Maps, so we’re unsure when it was taken.

The house after YRNO’s work

I had a chance to speak to one of the YRNO employees, Mary, who gave us some information on the organization and the person who had signed a purchase agreement for the house that we worked on today. YRNO sells the homes at 80% of appraised value so that the homeowner has 20% equity in the home just by purchasing and moving in. There are some stipulations: They ask that the home be owner-occupied and that the homeowner teach for at least three years. Their goal is to rebuild the city and to encourage persons (teachers) to come back and live in the city. They also aim to help these [primarily] young teachers to become homeowners since the teaching profession does not pay a lot.

J. Michael and Mary

The person who was purchasing the home we worked on today is a young male teacher, buying his first home. Some other people they have sold to include a single teaching mom with a 4-year-old child; a second went to a newly married couple who was purchasing their first home; and another to a single teacher who was at the end of her career. They tried to help her move into a house of her own since she was near retirement. Another house went to a couple – both teachers – who recently had their first child.

YRNO has been buying and rehabilitating homes, primarily for teachers, for only about two years. Initially (in 2005, when they started) they were focused on helping to gut homes that needed it. Then they started mainly helping the elderly and working poor with their homes. Many people were victims of contractor fraud after Katrina. What we’ve been told is that after the hurricane, homeowners were desperate and would hire contractors who insisted on payment up front. One woman lost $47,000 to a contractor who took the money and never did the work. She was forced to live in a homeless shelter. YRNO spent about $10,000 helping rebuild her home.

After Gustav and Ike, YRNO went to different suburbs of New Orleans to help gutting and rebuild there.

The organization aims to hire young people. They work with high school students and college students, ages 16-20. Two of the part-timers we have worked with are Dhvante and Prince. We worked with them yesterday at the S. Salcedo Street house. YRNO hires many young people in the summers through the JobOne program. They try to provide leadership training and job skills.

Mary told me that they’re able to do much of their work at cost. Home Depot is a wonderful partner, donating many of the building materials, so they’re able to do the work and rehab the homes very inexpensively.

Mary said that after Katrina, telephone lines were down and people in New Orleans were forced to come together for rebuilding efforts through online forums. (She also said there were no street signs since they were washed away in the storm. To find one’s way around the city, a person really had to know the neighborhood and know the streets.)

Danny at work

After hurricane Isaac, once again, their efforts went to neighboring towns to help gutting homes that needed it. In Braithwaite, LA, there was flooding because the Army Corps of Engineers stopped building the flood wall that stretched from New Orleans, just before getting to Braithwaite. Today, in this city, Mary reported there are still homes that are mere shells. Homeowners there are afraid to rebuild if the levies are not built, and the insurance companies are hesitant to insure homes in that area with no flood walls.

She mentioned that LaPlace was impacted by Ike. Here the levies will be fixed, and homeowners are interested in rebuilding.

Mary ended our conversation by stating there is no real hope with climate change and global warming. She talked about how traumatic it is to lose one’s home and said that if we don’t do something on a macro level about global warming, then we are merely waiting before experiencing the next weather-related catastrophe.

Our workday ended at 3pm, and we came back to the hostel for showers and naps. Karissa and Monica cooked mac and cheese and hamburgers for our group dinner. After dinner we drove around the city and then did a couple of reflection exercises for about an hour.

Starting with an ice breaker to get everyone engaged, we played a game of picture telephone. For those who have never played, this game involves a group starting the game by writing a sentence (every member in the group does this). Each paper is then passed to the right. The person to receive the paper illustrates the sentence with a drawing and then covers up the sentence, leaving only the drawing revealed. The paper is passed again to the right. The next person writes a sentence interpreting the drawing and covers up the drawing. The paper is passed again and the next person illustrates the sentence with a drawing, etc. The game goes on until people in the group receive their original sentence. At this time the entire page is revealed to discover how the original sentence changed through the various renditions of drawings and sentences.

We then were asked to draw a picture of what we thought about our service – either at the micro level (today’s service) or more generally at the macro level. Drawings were about both what we did today – the two houses we worked on at Olympia and S. Salcedo streets – and about global service and the impact that we can have (one drawing depicted the world with people standing on it, holding hands, to illustrate that we’re all in this together). Pictures also depicted the relationship between affordable housing, teachers, and future generations of school children.

You can also follow ACE on Facebook.


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Rebuilding homes in NOLA

ACE, CEL and Alternative Breaks, headed to New Orleans

Today we started the day with breakfast at our hostel. There were pancakes, coffee, fruit, and cereal. We made it to the worksite by 9am and worked for 3 hours alongside the executive director of Youth Rebuilding New Orleans. This is an organization for youth to rebuild homes that have been damaged by hurricanes. The executive director, William Stoudt, is the founder of the organization and was impacted by a hurricane when he was 17.

At that time, William and his friends were interested in helping with rebuilding efforts, but because they were younger than 18 were kept from the experience due to liability issues. And while William’s first priority was to rebuild existing homes, the organization has grown and now its members not only rebuild existing homes, but they also buy homes to rebuild and sell.

Their focus is on retention and recruitment of teachers, so the homes that they work on and the homes that they sell are primarily for teachers, because they appreciate that teachers have a great influence on what happens to our youth.

The house we’re working on in New Orleans

At the worksite, we were split up into smaller groups (there are 2 site leaders, myself, and 7 other students on the trip) where we worked with several part-time employees of the organization. The part-time staff are all young people – college students pursuing majors like criminal justice and engineering.

Several of us went inside a house to remove existing insulation, repair the studs, and then reinsulate. Another group went to the back of the house to tear down an exterior wall, remove bad insulation, and then build that exterior wall back up. Two other groups went outside to work on exterior siding. The group I was in removed siding that was buckling and replaced it (after careful measuring and cutting with a circular saw) with new concrete-based siding.

We worked diligently through the morning and took an hour lunch to enjoy the sunshine and eat the sack lunches that we prepared this morning. Most of the students napped – some in our SMU van, and some on the sidewalk and grass.

After an hour we went back to work, continuing our projects. We stopped working by 4pm and came back to the hostel for a much needed respite.

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Insulating an exterior wall

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