Visitors toil for Port Arthur’s recovery

Published 11:02 am Thursday, March 15, 2018

By Ken Stickney

Students from Howard University in Washington, D.C., got a break from biology labs and higher math homework this week — but not from hard work.

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Some 260 Howard students are in Texas this week — 83 in Port Arthur — principally to do restorative work — gutting and mucking housing, cleaning and moving furniture —to help Port Arthur residents who are still struggling more than six months after Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey.

Some students have cleaned up a local park, others have painted or moved mulch, all part of what is called Howard University’s Alternative Spring Break, an annual effort to forgo vacation time in favor of helping hard-pressed communities.

In all, some 800 of Howard’s 10,000 students have gone to 13 hurricane-affected or other troubled sites in Texas, Florida, Ghana, Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean as part of the volunteer effort.

Clara Ekezie from Dallas and Tayler Christian from Mount Vernon, New York are site coordinators, leading the Port Arthur effort for Howard, coordinating with local contact Tiffany Hamilton, a former councilwoman, who is representing Front Liners, a local 501(3)c organization that does community service, youth mentoring and athletic and academic training. Front Liners has been doing disaster recovery work since the storm.

Hamilton said housing is the chief need in Port Arthur, so helping clean up or prep houses for repair was especially important.

Planning started in autumn

 Students from Howard, an elite, historically black campus, have been planning their Alternative Spring Break since the autumn; they first contacted Hamilton in January to plan specifically for working in Port Arthur. They traveled 28 hours by charter bus to reach this city, where they started working Monday. They’ll leave Friday.

They are one of several groups working restoration projects in the city this week.

What they saw while entering Port Arthur through a troubled neighborhood was sobering.

“There was a mood change on the bus,” said Christian. “Everyone got quiet, looking out the window.”

Christian, who spent her 2017 spring break in Detroit, and Ekezie, who did hurricane recovery in North Carolina last year, said participating students reflect on what they’ve seen each night after working. That first night, she said, one student said, “I can’t believe people are living like this.”

Students said it was one thing to read about Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey, another thing — a culture shock — to see its effects in person.

The student leaders said the experience has been beneficial to those helped and those helping. They said people here were kind and “welcomed us with open arms.”

“We impacted the community and the community impacted us,” Christian said.

Hamilton said the students reached out to Port Arthur, something that people here should appreciate. The effort to clean donated goods was especially welcome, she said, so that residents could be spared that chore and receive goods that are “nice, clean and fresh.”

“These students from Howard prove how God sprinkles mercy on us all, the just and unjust,” Hamilton said. “On behalf of Front Liners, we say thank you.”