PEPPERELL -- While other kids were no doubt relishing extra hours of sleep in their own warm beds and catching up with friends over February vacation, a group of students from the North Middlesex High School were erecting walls and scraping away mold and mildew from houses ruined by one of the country's most infamous storms.
As he has done for the last seven years over February vacation, teacher Ray Kane has escorted the high school service learning group to New Orleans to lend a hand in cleaning up the city, which, years after being ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, is still desperately trying to recover all that it lost.
"When I go canvassing at local businesses, we usually get (people saying), 'So it's not better down there? I don't hear about it on the news anymore,'" said senior Maggie Kenney, 17. "I tell them rebuilding takes a lot more than hammer and nails ... These people lost everything. It's a lot more than a couple windows and the siding of a house. You can't really grasp that until you've lost that much."
Kenney was one of 40 North Middlesex students, accompanied by six chaperones, that journeyed down for the weeklong endeavor.
After arriving on Feb. 15, the group's first stop was a tour of the Lower Ninth Ward, part of the city that was affected most by the hurricane. Kane took the students down to the levy industrial canal area, where a barge had crashed, knocking down the levy and flooding the entire Lower Ninth Ward. The barge had never been removed.
Kane also took the students through various neighborhoods that had been affected, pointing out specific houses that had never been touched almost eight years later, while neighboring houses stood strong. Exes marked the doors of the untouched homes. Notices on the buildings indicated that preliminary checks for bodies, pets and toxic flood water were conducted on Sept. 15, 2005, two weeks after the storm had swept through the city.
First-time travelers to New Orleans were surprised at the scene that lay before them.
"My first impression was it really struck me the extent of the damage, just the general degree of destruction that there was even still," said sophomore Ben Szabady, 16.
Veterans of the program, however, had noticed progress, even just in the last year.
"We saw a huge amount of change in the infrastructure because the Super Bowl was held there this year. It brought a lot more income and jobs with building and they wanted to revamp the airports and roads. We saw a lot of different construction," said senior Nicolas Adami-Sampson, 17. "It was a huge change from last year."
Kane said it was a particularly exciting year for him; the first year he came down, he and some students visited an abandoned elementary school 10 months after the storm. This year, the city is preparing to reopen the school.
Still, the city's recovery is slow.
"Monumental change takes time," said Kane.
The group partnered with United Saints Recovery Project, a nonprofit organization working every day to help rebuild the city; the students logged more than 2,000 hours of community service.
In the little over a week that the group was there, they did everything from helping an artist paint a mural on the side of a house to building siding for homes to volunteering their time at food banks and community gardens. They excavated rotting wood, passed out food to the hungry and even sorted plastic Mardi Gras beads for recycling.
Among a variety of other projects, the students gutted homes in LaPlace -- a city hit hard by Hurricane Isaac -- of mold, helped rebuild the Houma Native American tribe's community center and volunteered with ARNO, a volunteer program working to maintain animals rescued from Katrina that have yet to be claimed. It is in large part because of ARNO's hard work on behalf of the 25,000 pets forcibly abandoned during the city's evacuation during Hurricane Katrina that FEMA changed its regulations; pet owners are now allowed to bring their animals during a forced evacuation.
"I felt gratitude, I felt honored to be a part of this movement of random everyday people willing to put their lives into rebuilding a single city," said senior Maria Rios, 18.
And the gratitude was reciprocated by the residents whose lives they were touching. One man whose home they were working on, Mr. David, sat in his car while the students were inside.
"I assumed he was out in his car because he didn't want to be in the way. We learned later that he wanted to stay in his car because he didn't want us to see him cry," said Adami-Sampson. "He didn't want us to know how happy, but at the same time sad, he was that people wanted to come help him."
One crucial aspect that all the students engaged in was reflection, sharing their thoughts with each other and recording them in a blog about what drove them to serve the community and what they learned about themselves from the experience.
"I think I learned that there's hope for the human race," said Kenney, a third year veteran of the program. "I'm seeing more and more kids go down there ... it shows there's hope that there are people out there that want to help, want to assist people, not for any gain of their own. They just want to be kind and caring people."
By the time the students got on the plane back to Massachusetts, one seemingly universal thought was running through their heads: "Don't take me home," said junior Matt White, 17.
"Not having obligations besides working and helping people was really, really refreshing," said Rios. "Going back, a lot of people were reluctant."
But they're hoping that they left behind an impression, both on the neighborhoods and on their occupants.
Kenney said of her experience picking up trash for four hours and being approached by a couple of young children on a bike, "Maybe if those kids see someone helping, they'll try to make their neighborhood a better place. It's a chain reaction."
"We could help, but we couldn't fix it. The neighborhood has to reinvigorate itself," said Adami-Sampson.
The trip is by no means inexpensive; in the past three years, the group has spent almost $140,000 to make the trek, paying out of pocket and hosting several fundraisers. The last one they held this year was a short play called "The Katrina Project: Hell and High Water."
But the trip is always worth the cost, the group agreed. One particular student blog post was one of the most gratifying moments for Kane. Danielle Croteau wrote in an entry titled "Moving Mountains with Spoons," "Thank you Mr. Kane for giving me this opportunity, you have handed me the world and said let's see what you can do."
"All I do is open the doors. My students tend to run through them and do things you could not ever have imagined them doing," said Kane, "And succeed to a level that is spectacular."
Read what the students had to say about their experiences at nolaservicelearning2013.blogspot.com.