Published January 18, 2013
For many undergraduates, a trip to Louisiana centers on New Orleans and its fabled nightlife. Not so for 16 University at Buffalo students who earlier this month spent a week volunteering in the wetlands of southern Louisiana.
Part of UB’s annual alternative winter break that emphasis hands-on service work, the trip was facilitated by the Center for Student Leadership and Community Engagement, the Office of Sustainability, and Student Life.
It brought students to the bayou and into the heart of Cajun culture. In addition to learning how to pick apart crawfish and the finer points of zydeco music, the students were educated on the environmental, cultural and economic issues facing southern Louisiana.
The students flew on Jan. 5 from Buffalo to New Orleans, where the temperatures hovered in the mid-50s. Vans took them to Chauvin, a small fishing community about 50 miles southwest, where they stayed at Bayou Grace Community Services, a social services agency.
The following day, spent at the Louisiana State Museum’s Hurricane Katrina exhibit in New Orleans, served as a welcome and orientation for the work that lay ahead, said Jim Simon, UB sustainability engagement coordinator, who helped organize and co-lead the trip.
Students woke Jan. 7 at 6:30 a.m. to ready for a day on the water. With temperatures still in the 50s and high winds, the weather offered little respite from the snow in Buffalo. Offered by the Louisiana Marine Universities Consortium, the daytrip proved special as dolphins swam near the boat and students got a firsthand look at shrimp, squid, puffer fish and other marine life found in the Gulf.
The day also included a stop at the Isle of Jean Charles, home to roughly two dozen Native American families who, despite the island slowly and steadily sinking into the Gulf, are determined to remain there.
The students again traveled by boat the following day -- only this time they planted roughly 1,000 plants at strategic locations in the Gulf. The plants serve many purposes including, but not limited to, helping to keep flood waters at bay, creating habitat for fish and birds, and filtering nutrients to improve water quality.
The next day, as the temperature neared 70, students bundled 250 Christmas trees and placed them into pens along the Intracoastal Waterway, which serves as navigational route along the Gulf Coast and Atlantic Ocean. The trees create a barrier which slows down and ultimately reduces the loss of sediment in the waterway.
Students also toured a swamp, getting a close look at alligators and an impromptu lesson in Cajun music, which is characterized by fiddles, washboards, accordions and French lyrics. The final two days were spent working in the Gulf’s delicate ecosystem, Simon said.
Brianne Gertin, a senior majoring in environmental design, said in an email that it was the people of southern Louisiana who left the greatest impression on her.
“Even after everything that has happened there (hurricanes, oil spills, coastal erosion) they refuse to give up because they can't imagine living anywhere else. Louisiana isn't just a state, it’s a way of life, a unique culture and environment that you can't find anywhere else, so to be able to go down there and help preserve it is amazing,” she said.
It was the second consecutive year that UB students volunteered in southern Louisiana during winter break, an effort UB hopes to continue.
“UB is building relationships with the amazing people of southern Louisiana. The change we create is quickly becoming lasting,” Simon said.