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New Orleans Working Vacations Catch On
'Voluntourists' Rebuild By Day, Party by Night

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 15, 2006; A03

NEW ORLEANS -- Wearing safety goggles and dust mask, Anita McClendon shouldered a rotten floorboard to the curbside debris pile and then, dirty and dusty, paused to smile. This, she said, "is awesome."

McClendon, 48, and about a dozen other volunteers were gutting the innards of the flood-ravaged Greater Little Zion Baptist Church in the Lower Ninth Ward. It was tough, sweaty work, and for some of the volunteers, it was their vacation.

McClendon, a health care worker from Oakland, Calif., was here for three weeks, ripping down demolished buildings by day -- and dancing to zydeco by night. She and thousands of other volunteers are combining work and play to help rebuild this devastated city.

This month, they are being joined by hundreds of college students spending spring break here and on Mississippi's Gulf Coast. They include 200 students from Howard University, more than 40 from George Washington University and more than two dozen from American University's Washington College of Law. The effort is dubbed "voluntourism," and local leaders say it is critical to the rebuilding because it provides dollar-spending fun lovers and hammer-wielding fixer-uppers all rolled into one.

The more than 1,000 students expected here in the coming weeks will clean out houses and churches and day-care centers. "We'll be slammed with people," said Felix Wai, director of the Mardi Gras Service Corps, a nonprofit group supported by Tulane University, the city of New Orleans and other sponsors.

Residents in some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods are still awaiting a decision by the Federal Emergency Management Agency on how far above ground level homes must be rebuilt to avoid future flooding. There is concern that some voluntourism organizations may be moving too fast, rebuilding in areas that are of questionable safety.

Wai said he is "extremely worried" that some houses his volunteers work on will eventually be in areas slated to be abandoned. But he said that it is important to get people back into their homes, even if later there are zoning and insurance problems.

The Mardi Gras Service Corps is focusing on the most devastated neighborhoods of the city, including the Lower Ninth Ward, Gentilly and Central City. Wai said the group is trying to provide housing, schools, day-care centers and jobs. "Without those four fundamentals," he said, "people won't come back."

The Web site, VolunTourism.org, points out that the combination of volunteerism and tourism dates back centuries: Missionaries, sailors, explorers and others performed social services while visiting new places. The modern iteration began in the 1960s with the launching of the Peace Corps. Study-abroad programs in the 1970s and ecotourism in the 1980s expanded the notion. Volunteer vacations, with organizations such as Earthwatch, really took hold in the 1990s.

Habitat for Humanity, the Georgia-based home-building group for low-income families, offers voluntourism opportunities, called "global village trips," around the world.

"People join a group that travels together to a location," said spokesman Duane Bates. "They build houses during the day and enjoy cultural activities at night."

Habitat also offers a chance for young people to help others in America. Collegiate Challenge is a year-round program in which students work for a week or two to help build houses in needy areas.

Through Habitat, volunteers are helping to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region. Bates said that 35,000 people have contacted the organization in the past six months about volunteering. Since January, more than 1,300 people have worked for the group in the greater New Orleans area.

"Volunteers are at the core of what we do," Bates said.

Alexis Logan, 22, is one of the Howard University students who will be spending spring break working with Habitat in New Orleans. Logan said that she and the other students won't be acting wild and crazy; they will mostly be cleaning out damaged houses. But they will do a few touristy things.

"We'll be eating out, seeing the sights, enjoying the history of the French Quarter," said Logan, a senior political science major from Texas. "Traditional spring breaks are when students go to tropical islands and do what college students do. . . . This may not be as fun, but it will be just as rewarding in the end."

Mardi Gras Service Corps volunteers are expected to work four to six hours a day. They are relieved of duty in time to hit the town to eat dinner at an oyster house or hear jazz at a nightclub. The group even helps people find temporary lodging, which is rare in the city these days.

"We are housing a lot of people in churches and community centers," Wai said. The group advertises through word of mouth and a Web site, http://www.bottletreeproductions.com/mgsc .

The program was scheduled to run through April, but Wai said it has been so popular and the need is so great it may be revived in the summer, when more students can come. "There is a lot of energy in the youth of the nation right now," he said.

"Young people have always been excited by New Orleans, by its unique culture and its history," said Sandra S. Shilstone of the city's tourism department. "Now they like being a part of history in the making."

She said she could see other U.S. cities capitalizing on the voluntourism idea because there are lots of areas in lots of cities that need assistance.

Staff writer Susan Kinzie in Washington contributed to this report.
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