To the bayou and back

On January 28, 2014

  • The UB Winter Alternative Break Program in the Louisiana Wetlands got stuck in Chicago for four days. But News Editor Amanda Low, along with other volunteers, eventually arrived in the bayou for Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP). Courtesy of Jim Simon

It is a wonder how a week filled with countless unforeseen troubles and disappointments became one of the most rewarding trips I will probably take in my life.

Leaving my home the morning of Jan. 9 for UB's Winter Alternative Break Program, I expected to arrive in Louisiana two days later, where I would spend a week volunteering in the state's wetlands. In reality, my classmates and I didn't make it there until Jan 15.

That first day left us somewhat dispirited after grappling with one delay and two canceled flights.

The situation looked relatively bleak the next day. We made it to Chicago for our connecting flight but could not make it out of the city until the morning.

Our group trudged into a hotel led by our advisers, Jim Simon, the sustainability engagement coordinator, and Liz Hladczuk, the reservations coordinator. We remained hopeful, with a flight scheduled for the next morning.

Of course, that would not happen. We were officially caught in the midst of the polar vortex.

I recalled my father telling me, before we knew just how disastrous the weather would get, that it would be absolutely fine for me to stay home. If the weather got bad, he hoped the flight would be canceled.

And our flight did get canceled - more than five times (I stopped counting after the fifth cancelation).

But this trip was more than a series of agonizing airport trips. Despite the drama of the polar vortex and the excitement of finally reaching Louisiana, it was the people I met on the trip that made it most memorable.

It was my fellow students who shared in the dismay that our trip would not go as planned but accepted that we would make the best of it regardless. It was our patient advisers who gave us a dose of positivity that was sorely needed at times. It was the passionate Louisianans who helped us understand why our trip was meaningful, despite all the trouble it took to get there.

The candid relationships our group developed could not be confined by the short breadth of a week. I think we all understood how very familiar our faces would be to each other by the end of the trip.

The situation exemplified the idea that disaster - not that we were in any danger - brings people together. We managed to just mesh all the diverse personalities within the group.

Rachael Gray, a senior dance and environmental studies major who also went on the trip, said the situation seemed like a "perfect storm" - how funny that we found our own within the vortex.

"Accepting there are some things you cannot change and then deciding how you will react are two important skills to have," Hladczuk said. "The students clearly made the best of the situation, over and over."

Even though we were stuck in Chicago, our group decided to put our time to good use. We were there to volunteer, so why not do just that?

Being at Chicago's Pacific Garden Mission gave us a resurgence of energy and a taste of what we would've done down South. And once we landed in Louisiana, we hungered for everything the state could offer - and what we could offer in return.

Once we got started on our work in Louisiana, we were inspired by the passion of the two men, Joe and Matt, who worked with us. They were a part of Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, one of the organizations preserving and restoring the wetlands of Louisiana.

Three days proved enough for us to understand how extensively the people care about the bayou and wetlands of Louisiana.

On Thursday, we took on the "Christmas Tree Project," throwing donated Christmas trees onto cribs - barriers constructed along vulnerable coastlines of the bayou. The dense wall of trees helps lessen erosion of the coast by waves.

Though dragging and throwing evergreens to and from a boat was not the highlight of the entire trip, it would not have meant anything if Joe or Matt hadn't joined us.

During quiet moments back on the boat after we had just emptied our load of trees, Joe and Matt would explain the history of Spanish moss (used for pillow stuffing in the past). They shared tidbits of their lives and explained how they ended up on a boat in the bayou.

Getting swept up in the vortex was obviously not expected. But being pulled into this whirlwind of relationships was even more of a surprise.

Nicole Hunter, a sophomore psychology major, really felt the heart they put into their projects and the way they answered all of our questions.

"It made UB feel smaller," Hunter said.

Making all these new friendships gave Hunter the impression that we are now a little less alone here among so many students.

I applied for this program because of the lure of New Orleans and lushness of Louisiana, as did most of us, I think. But we all walked away with a UB memory that we can now cherish.



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