Penn State Students Forego Spring Break To Help Gulf Coast Recovery Efforts

Mark A. Schexnayder, Morgan, Johnny W.  |  3/14/2006 10:41:09 PM

Teamwork was key to straightening the frame for this greenhouse at Gulliot’s Nursery that was blown down by Hurricane Katrina. A group of students from Penn State University recently spent time in the New Orleans area helping with hurricane recovery.

At Pelican Greenhouse in New Orleans City Park, Penn State and LSU students spent a day cleaning and repairing structures that were damaged by hurricane winds and flooding.

Penn State and LSU students teamed up to help the Botanical Garden in New Orleans City Park recover from storm damage. The students spent a day planting Japanese yew trees, among other chores.

News Release Distributed 03/14/06

As New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region struggle to recover from last year’s hurricanes, help continues to arrive, and LSU AgCenter faculty members continue to assist in coordinating those efforts.

Among the latest to help was a group of students from Penn State University, who gave up their spring break last week (March 4-10) to visit the New Orleans area and help to get the city back up and running.

Mark Schexnayder, the LSU AgCenter’s hurricane recovery coordinator, has been working with the many groups who have helped with recovery efforts. He said this group of 50 students arrived excited about being able to help and ready to go to work.

"I got a call a few months ago letting me know that these mostly agriculture and engineering students wanted to come down and help out," Schexnayder said. "They asked if I would coordinate and find projects for them to work on."

Schexnayder said he felt that the least he could do was to help them find projects to do and places to work. The advance coordination was handled through a lot of phone calls and e-mails, he said.

Then the students arrived early last week.

Jenni James, assistant professor of agricultural economics at Penn State, explained how the project was developed and how the students helped to make it a reality. She said shortly after the hurricane hit, she and two other professors were feeling like they just wanted to do something to try to help the rebuilding efforts.

"We were just watching the news, and it seemed like nothing was really happening – or nothing was happening fast enough," James explained. "So we talked about maybe getting some students involved, because they have a lot of energy and not a lot of money. We thought we could use their energy to help with the cleanup."

James said she had never been involved in a project like this, but she knew of several students who had helped out with Habitat for Humanity.

Preliminary work on the project began in November with an informal session on the Penn State campus. Students were invited to learn about the project, and organizers hoped to get an estimate of how many would be interested.

"At the informal session we had expected to have 20 to 30 students show up," James said. "But, to our surprise, we ended up with standing room only at the meeting."

Kathy Kelley, assistant professor of consumer horticulture at Penn State, said the project eventually was organized into an actual "class," but that they had to limit the number of students to 50, and each student had to raise $500 to take care of the course fee.

"Many of the students found sponsors, like former employers, to help with the expenses, and we also had a big fundraiser to generate needed funds," Kelley said.

Nathan Niehls, a senior majoring in agriculture business management who participated in the project, said after seeing the damage to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast on the news he was planning to come and help even before the Penn State class was organized.

"I had never been to New Orleans, but I knew it was just a win-win for everyone," Niehls said, adding, "Anything that we can do to help also helps us to grow and to learn."

Schexnayder said a variety of other college students also have helped in the recovery and those numbers are far too great to catalog. The Penn State group was the third that Schexnayder and other LSU AgCenter agents in the region worked with directly. LSU AgCenter faculty members also have worked with other groups, as well, to help them find projects in the area.

The Penn State students spent part of their week working at Guillot’s Nursery in New Orleans and another part at the Pelican Greenhouse and the Botanical Garden at City Park. At Gulliot’s the students did everything from cleaning out buildings that were flooded to rebuilding a greenhouse that was blown over by wind.

Bobby Gulliot, owner of the nursery, said the amount of work the students did at his nursery in one day would have taken him from six months to three years to get done without them.

"You would not believe the help that they’ve provided me. I could not put a dollar figure on it," Gulliot said, adding, "It took me a while on the phone with Mark as he was explaining what these students wanted come down here to do, but finally he made me understand that they wanted to come in and provide free labor to help me get back up and running."

Gulliot said the damage to his business was actually three-fold. First, the wind ripped roofs off some buildings. Then the flooding left about 3 feet of water that sat on his property for at least three weeks. After those, a drought, which lasted from September through November, set in.

At New Orleans City Park, the students set out Japanese yew trees, cleaned out the Pelican Greenhouse and did repairs to buildings. A group of LSU students teamed up with the Penn State students to share the work at City Park.

Schexnayder said the first group of college students LSU AgCenter agents worked with in mid-December was from Ohio State University. Then, in January, a group of students from McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., helped out in the area.

He said each group of students has provided much-needed people-power at a time when help is hard to find because of the lack of housing in the area.

"There is just no labor to be had right now," Schexnayder said. "You can’t buy labor even if you wanted to. It’s just not available.

"My job has been to find housing for the groups, and with the help of other LSU AgCenter agents in the area, we’ve lined up work for the students once they got here," he said.

The groups have been most helpful to people in nursery businesses and in the citrus industry in Plaquemines Parish. But their work has not been limited to these areas.

"We’ve had some of the students to work with LSU AgCenter agents on the Northshore helping dairy farmers rebuild fences--some worked with individuals and others worked with churches," Schexnayder said.

Schexnayder said another group of Ohio State students is expected to return next week to provide more help.

For more details on the variety of work done by the LSU AgCenter, visit Or to volunteer to help in the area’s recovery process, contact Schexnayder at (504) 838-1170 or


Contact: Mark Schexnayder at (504) 838-1170 or Writer: Johnny Morgan at (225) 281-0814 or

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