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Muhlenberg College

Thursday, April 2, 2009

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two mule athletes help katrina victims
reach the finish line

Muhlenberg athletes were all over the country during Spring Break. The women’s basketball team and members of the track teams went north to Maine and Massachusetts, respectively, and two wrestlers traveled west to Iowa, all for postseason competition. The baseball, softball and men’s golf teams started their seasons in Florida, and the lacrosse teams also traveled south to Virginia.

Two Mule athletes had a different purpose on their Spring Break trip. They were among 37 students who set out to make a difference in communities across the country by participating in Muhlenberg’s Alternative Spring Break program. Eleven students went down to Virginia for Habitat for Humanity. Twelve went to Washington, D.C., for a public policy trip. And 14 students went to the St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana to rebuild houses destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

Two of the students on the Hurricane Katrina trip were Mule athletes. This is their story:

Senior Thomas Holtz of the Muhlenberg
aerial view
This aerial view shows the devastation that still exists in New Orleans.
men’s track team and sophomore Myah Blazar of the women’s tennis team are no longer just members of the ’Berg community. After spending their Spring Break in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, rebuilding homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, Holtz and Blazar have made their way into the lives of those affected by one of the country’s greatest disasters.

Hurricane Katrina was the costliest hurricane in U.S. history (about $81.2 billion in damage) and the deadliest hurricane since 1928; at least 1,836 people lost lives in the actual hurricane and the subsequent floods.

The St. Bernard Parish was one of the hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina; the eye of the storm passed over the eastern portion, causing 25-foot storm surges and breaching most levees and destroying almost every structure in the parish.

“Things like steps leading up to nothing — that’s still everywhere,” said Blazar. “It’s amazing how much still needs to be done. It’s a slow fix. If something happens in another country, we’re so quick to help, but if something happens in our own country, it’s a slow process.”

Three and a half years after Hurricane Katrina hit, people from the St. Bernard Parish are still living in trailers.

“People are still displaced,” said Holtz. “It’s a couple
of years after the fact so we forget about that, and that’s why I went; I wanted to continue to raise awareness.”

Muhlenberg’s group of students went down to the parish as a part of a grassroots organization, the St. Bernard Project. A fully volunteer-run organization funded by the United Way, they help residents get back into their homes by working on the houses, providing tools, support and, where possible, funding.

“They have more volunteers than money,” said Blazar. “We’re going to start our own chapter at Muhlenberg so we can continue to help.”

Blazar explained the unique situation of the St. Bernard Parish and why families insist on staying in the area. “All the families that live there are third generation; their grandparents and parents lived there, those are their parents’ houses. There was one man who paid $90 for 30 years for his mortgage and he owns his house. They all own those houses. That’s why they consider it worth rebuilding.”

Holtz and Blazar spent their week laying flooring, painting walls and framing the windows of a house owned by a couple with young boys. The family has been living in a trailer since the storm.

“The family would come in every day, so we got to see the effect we were having,” said Blazar. “That made it a really personal experience.”

“It was great to watch the kids come in and, after living in a trailer, they got to see the house and what would be their own personal space, their own rooms,” said Holtz.

“The mother worked a couple of jobs,” he continued. “But she would
Myah Blazar
Blazar (second from right, above) and Holtz (right) hone their home-rebuilding skills.
put the effort into making us lunch. For them to give back what little they had, it was such a personal gesture.”

“They would run out to get us drinks,” said Blazar. “They were
Thomas Holtz
really appreciative and they let us know how thankful they were.”

In fact, the whole community did. The group traveled together in a big white van and they were clearly tourists. “People would ask us, ‘Are you rebuilding? Thank you so much,’” said Blazar.

Blazar said the trip was doubly great; not only was the group making a difference in the lives of the hurricane victims, they were making a difference in their own lives.

“We were acquiring skills, learning to lay floor and baseboards, learning to install doors,” said Blazar.

What Holtz and Blazar experienced in the St. Bernard Parish put being an athlete into perspective, especially when they are competing within the comforts of Muhlenberg’s great facilities.

“If I lose a match, at least my team is right here,” said Blazar. “At least I have my family, housing and food. The experience really made me appreciate what I have.”

“There’s always another race,” said Holtz. “These people — every day they fight to make their lives better. It’s inspiring how determined they are to get to the finish line.”

Click here for more information on the St. Bernard Project.

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