Wesli Spencer, a 22- year-old junior at James Madison University, was at home in West Virginia last summer when Katrina swamped New Orleans. Like everyone else who watched the misery on television, he was dumbfounded by the lame response--and figured there had to be something students like him could do to help the people whose lives had been upended. "I can't really explain what it felt like to see so many black faces trapped and unable to get help," he says. So when he got back to school, Spencer started talking with others on campus and came up with a plan. Somehow, he would persuade students around the country to do the unthinkable: trade their cherished spring-break fantasies of partying at the beach for the sober reality of clearing rubble in New Orleans, Mobile and Biloxi. "There was no way to enjoy the things we normally could," he says, "knowing so many people who looked like us had suffered so much and were still suffering with no end in sight."
Spencer knows a thing or two about organizing people around a cause. The founder of a student group called the Neo-Underground Railroad, he had enlisted students at campuses nationwide to flood record companies and Hollywood studios with letters protesting the glorification of violent, degrading stereotypes of African-Americans in music and movies. Spencer's group appealed to its 2,000 members, spread across 50 college campuses, to participate in the storm-victims campaign, dubbed Katrina on the Ground. The National Urban League and the NAACP kicked in financial support.
About 900 students heeded the call, and they began heading down south in batches earlier this month. Their first stop was Selma, Ala., where the students participated in an orientation that included a refresher course on the civil-rights movement, the March on Washington and the Freedom Summer of 1964. In Selma, which the organizers chose for its obvious ties to the movement, the students were also given basic instruction in cleaning, gutting and rebuilding houses.
Along with the physical efforts to refurbish predominantly African-American areas in New Orleans, Alabama and Mississippi, Neo-Underground students are guiding residents through bureaucratic swamps--helping them to understand their legal rights and assisting them in filling out stacks of insurance forms. "I knew I wanted to come down and help them understand ... how to get some of the answers they need, and deserve, to get back on their feet a little,'' says Mary Lancaster, a 20-year-old Hampton University prelaw major.
Of course, in the past six months many other volunteers have convened in the gulf region to help the clean up. But 54-year-old native James Williams says it's important to see so many young faces pitching in to help. "We have to help each other, it's that simple,'' says Williams, who returned to his shattered home in the Lower Ninth Ward just three weeks ago. "To see kids who look like my grandkids coming out and helping me clean up side by side makes me feel good on the days it's hard to feel good about anything. It helps me want to see another day.''
Spencer says the spring-break session is just the beginning. The Neo-Underground network of students has committed to continue its rebuilding efforts when school is out this summer, and students will keep coming back as long as their help is needed. "The toughest part was seeing that these people had this look of relief when they saw us coming in to help,'' says Spencer. "They told us they couldn't depend on the government anymore. It was like they knew--they could depend on us.''