J. Wayne Burgess, Faust, Lauren, Blanchard, Tobie M. | 4/29/2006 1:59:27 AM
LSU AgCenter 4-H agents are working with students in St. Bernard Parish to help them find things to do and ways to take their minds off the devastation all around them.
For the students in the St. Bernard Unified School, Hurricane Katrina devastated their community, and many things in their lives remain uncertain.
In one of the many educational and entertaining activities LSU AgCenter 4-H agents are providing, a group of fourth graders was working on an experiment.
The youngsters decorated 2-liter plastic bottles to look like rockets. Then, working in pairs, they funneled a few cups of water into each of their "bottle rockets" and pumped air into the bottles.
After the air caused pressure to build up within the bottles, youngsters pulled a small u-shaped hook, and with a pop and a whiz, there was a release and the bottles soared through the air.
Officials say the release of pressure from the rockets is similar to the type of release they hope these activities bring to the pressures and heartaches felt by the students trying to live in the midst of the hurricane’s aftermath.
"The kids really have no place, nothing really to do when they leave us. There are really no places for them to play," said Wayne Warner, principal of the St. Bernard Unified School. "There is nothing organized that they can belong to."
The after-school program allows students to participate in a variety of activities while giving parents peace of mind that their kids are somewhere safe. And the LSU AgCenter’s 4-H youth development program has become an instrumental part of the after-school activities.
On the afternoon that 4-H leaders were shooting plastic bottle rockets with third and fourth graders, the activities weren’t just about the fun. The students also were learning about the effects of air pressure, as well as getting real-life practice at measuring distances and angles.
"We’ve tried to do some things that are fun with them to expand their horizons scholastically without them knowing about it," said Wayne Burgess, LSU AgCenter 4-H agent in St. Bernard Parish.
Burgess and fellow LSU AgCenter 4-H agent Lauren Faust are at the school three days a week. They offer the students nutrition lessons, games and exercises. They also are comforting and familiar faces for the youngsters.
"They need this time to release some of their stress," Burgess said. "The hard part is, they are in school all day long, and a lot of them are going home to a pile of rubble – or they are living in FEMA trailers that are too small."
St. Bernard Unified School, which combined elementary, middle and high schools within the parish, opened in the middle of November with 300 students.
"It was obvious that we needed to start a school as quickly as we could, so the community could come back, because the community wouldn’t come back unless it had a place to live and a place for kids to go to school," Warner said.
Burgess was there when the newly constituted school first opened its doors.
"The kids just looked shell-shocked," Burgess said. "It reminded me of pictures I’d seen growing up when I was a kid of people coming through the depression – just the look of uncertainty and fear."
Today the school, located on the Chalmette High School campus, has 2,300 students, and every day more families return.
"Parents are bringing them back, because the kids feel at home," Warner said. "They’re with people they know. They’re with people who had similar experiences."
Over the months, Burgess has seen the resiliency of youth. Smiles abounded during the after-school program, while the students chased their flying rockets. It was obvious the students were enjoying the activity but also learning something along the way.
"We are learning how to use a compass, and this is kind of like science," said fourth-grader Julia Thornton. "We are using the rockets we built to see how high they can get and how far they go"
While the students may go home to cramped FEMA trailers, these activities allow them to be normal kids again and to release some of their pressures.