Most students driving south to New Orleans this week excitedly imagine warm weather, loud music and plenty of parties and alcohol. The city is an escape from studying, libraries and mundane life on campus. Many University of Illinois students travel to Louisiana this time of year seeking just that: fun and excitement. A particular group of students pack tightly in cars and make the drive down, with a different kind of excitement in mind.
"We had four different groups working on projects. One group painted a man's house, while another group worked on a house overgrown with weeds," said Kendra Dickinson, treasurer of NOLA relief. "They had to take all that stuff out from the house and apply mold treatments to make the structure salvageable."
Dickinson and 18 other students involved in a group called New Orleans Louisiana Relief, shortened to NOLA, were excited to get their hands dirty as volunteers visiting the city.
Dickinson explained that the acronym is also a common nickname for the city.
"It's invoking the spirit of New Orleans," she said.
The organization goes on two big trips during the year. Between traveling and volunteering, the group stays longer than a week, so students can go either during winter or summer break.
"Spring break is hard because it's such a far drive and a short time frame," said Dickinson. "This last trip we went for nine days, but we've gone from 10 to 15 days before."
When the group is on campus, the members spend the entire year trying to raise money. "We aspire for all the trips to be free for volunteers," she said. She wanted to get involved in volunteer opportunities in high school, but many of them required her to pay a lot of money. "It limits people who want to do good but don't have the money," she said. "We weren't going to ask people to give money so we did our own fundraising efforts."
The group received some funding from the university, but also raised funds through bake sales, selling apple cider and lemonade on the quad, and most recently hosted a benefit concert.
On a recent Friday night, over 200 people showed up for a "battle of the bands" type event. Ten different bands were competing for a spot to play in a popular music festival called Summer Camp. The event raised $900, enough to send 10 students on a trip.
Money is the biggest obstacle the group faces. NOLA is run entirely by students. The group has the freedom to pick one organization in New Orleans to collaborate with.
"It really makes it rewarding to get everyone involved in the planning process because we are all students," she said.
Over the winter, the group teamed with Operation Helping Hands, a division of Catholic charities focused on working with elderly and disabled residents. Their houses were still standing from the destruction of hurricane Katrina, but needed to be fixed up so they could be livable again.
"One project that just made me so happy was taking algae off and repainting a house. We met the man who lived there, he was 85 years old and his father had built the house. It made me feel really awesome to be able to help him," she said.
Dickinson can understand why college kids enjoy going down to the city.
"The people are so friendly and so open. They were grateful and had this positive energy despite everything that has happened to them," she said.
Since NOLA was started in 2006 by two students, about 10 different groups of 20 to 30 kids have traveled during break to help. Many have gone multiple times and some even moved to the city after graduating.
Dickinson said, "It's a beautiful city. These people deserve to have the dignity to have their homes back. I believe in New Orleans and I believe in the spirit of the people."