By Jennifer Toland TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
Touring New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward was an experience that changed the life of WPI senior field hockey captain Danielle Antonellis.
In January, as part of a WPI Habitat for Humanity mission, Antonellis, president of the organization, and 40 other WPI students saw firsthand the lasting devastation left by Hurricane Katrina. The catastrophe happened six years ago, but there is still squalor, neglect and sadness.
"It just hits you in the face," said Antonellis, who was particularly disturbed by the spray-painted Xs, sometimes accompanied by a number, left on homes by search-and-rescue crews. "Those tell you how many people passed away in the house. Then you see all the roofs with holes in them. You think, 'Oh, that's sad.' But then you remember, 'Oh, they got out.' "
The sights and scenes stuck with Antonellis and other members of WPI Habitat for Humanity, and last week the group, with great support from members of the field hockey team, held an event at the campus center Odeum called "Building Dreams in New Orleans," a dinner and fundraiser to benefit the Lower Ninth Ward Village.
The Lower Ninth Ward Village is a community center that offers services such as literacy and job training, apprenticeship programs, recreational facilities, community meeting space and, most of all, hope to residents of the neighborhood.
Mack McClendon, founder and executive director of the Lower Ninth Ward Village, spoke at the WPI event and also cooked jambalaya and other Cajun fare. A jazz band, raffles and silent auctions highlighted the event, which raised more than $11,000.
"Mack said it was one of the most moving experiences he's ever had," said sophomore goalkeeper Liz Dufresneof Worcester, "to see that six years after Katrina, people were still caring, still working to make sure someone is giving them attention, because they're nowhere near being back on their feet again."
Their volunteerism with Habitat for Humanity has brought members of the tight-knit WPI field hockey team even closer. The groups co-sponsor events throughout the year, including the pledge-a-thon that's now going on during the Engineers' season. A friend of Dufresne has pledged 10 cents for every save she makes (she's currently in for $6.40). Someone else has pledged a dollar for every goal that senior forward Sasha Marokhovsky of Upton scores. At the end of the season, all the money goes to Habitat for Humanity.
Other fundraisers, like the "Dream House Competition," which requires students to build a model house out of toothpicks and gum drops, will take place later in the year. Last year, someone built a working Ferris wheel out of those materials. Only at WPI.
"It wasn't quite a house, but you have to give them credit," said Dufresne, who is a committee chairperson for WPI Habitat for Humanity, which has about 150 members. She did the publicity for the "Building Dreams in New Orleans." Junior forward Megan Read is the treasurer.
WPI Habitat for Humanity works closely with the MetroWest/Greater Worcester Habitat for Humanity affiliate and has recently helped to build homes in Sturbridge, Boylston and Worcester.
"I think the biggest thing for me is you get to build it with the homeowner," Antonellis said. "You'll be hammering away and a lady will say, 'This will be my home in six months.' "
Last month, Antonellis, Dufresne and other WPI Habitat volunteers assisted the crew of ABC-TV's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" when it rebuilt a Springfield home destroyed in the June tornado.
Back on the WPI quad, students lent a hand to build a shed, which was brought to the yard of a local Habitat for Humanity home. A spring project, which will team WPI mentors with high school students to design play houses, is being planned, Antonellis said. The play houses will be donated to Habitat homes or day care centers.
Antonellis and Dufresne and a number of other field hockey players will make a return trip to the Lower Ninth Ward in January.
"Disaster recovery doesn't end when the media stops covering it," Antonellis said.
One of her objectives for the January trip is to remove the Xs from the homes.
On the field this fall, the Engineers (8-4-1) are having success. They started 4-0 as Dufresne posted two early-season shutouts, and beat defending NEWMAC champion Babson, 3-2, last week. A 9-0 loss to Babson last season, and a 5-12 finish in 2010, stuck with the Engineers during the offseason.
"We're all extremely motivated," Antonellis said.
Freshman forward Libbi Richardson of Uxbridge has scored four winning goals.
On Saturday, WPI has a big game against conference and intracity rival Clark (7-3). The Cougars feature junior Mel Melkonian, the leading scorer in Division 3 and a high school teammate of Dufresne at St. Peter-Marian.
Burgin is back
This week, we'll be welcoming back to town the former writer of this column, Sandy Burgin.
Burgin, who is still loving life in La Jolla, Calif., is in the area for his 50-year high school class reunion.
Story appeared in Worcester Telegram and Gazette - Wednesday, October 12th