A decade’s worth of group-leader secrets, from FEMA trailers and red gravy to self-care and the future of alternative breaks.
Kurt Jostes: So first off, please explain the background story on how you first got into leading alternative breaks.
Morgan Somerville: I’m currently the Director of Student Engagement at Stevenson University outside of Baltimore. I have been coming to New Orleans to help rebuild for 11 years now. It started… a friend of mine that I lived with had an extra spot on a church trip to Chalmette and said, “would you like to come with me?” And I said, “yeah, let me ask my boss if I can get off.” It was two weeks away, someone dropped off, so it was like really random by chance that I could go, and my boss said I could go.
I left and flew down here with the Church of the Brethren. They had an early presence here in New Orleans and also in other disaster areas around the country and also around world.
We stayed in a FEMA trailer in Arabi and worked with a few different people, and at one point during the week I was introduced to the very-very- “baby” St. Bernard Project and was really impressed by them and thought they were doing good things. And after a week here realized just how much need there still was. It was March of 2008, two and a half years after Katrina and I was shocked by what I saw. At that point we were only working in Chalmette and I remember seeing the huge piles of debris in everyone’s front yards, getting picked up.
The reason I found out about going to Rocky and Carlo’s for the first time was the bulldozer guys. I was like, well you guys are locals, where should we go eat? And they’re like, “Oh yeah, go to Rocky and Carlo’s and get the veal parm with red gravy.” And I am not Italian, so I didn’t know what red gravy was, and I thought it was blood sauce. So much to my surprise, when we go and it’s marinara sauce!
Jostes: But it’s not marinara sauce, it’s red gravy!
Somerville: It’s red gravy, right! But I was like all day long: I’m going to go eat veal with blood sauce… hahaha!
It was incredible what I saw, as far as the amount of destruction still, and lack of progress. And not to put any blame on the homeowners, but it just wasn’t progressing. And so I bought in pretty early on to what St Bernard Project was trying to do, and talked to those folks and stayed in touch.
So I went back to campus and I attempted to quit my job, and my boss told me no, which I’m pretty sure my parents called him ahead of time and were like “don’t let Morgan quit her job.” I was crying like the entire plane ride home, cried the entire weekend, cried the entire trip into work. I was like, I just feel called to be there, like, that’s my calling. I need to be in Chalmette, Louisiana and rebuild homes. And I told my boss this and he’s like, “that’s not your calling, you need re-evaluate your calling.” And I was like, “you can’t tell me what my calling is,” (because I was a really mature professional) and my boss, he was like “no, this is not your calling. Go sit and think about yourself and come up with what your calling is.”
I’m pretty sure I stomped out of the office and went and sat in my office and pouted for awhile, and then part of me realized that when I was in college at JMU (James Madison University) I went on Alternative Break programs, and that kind of thing did not exist at Stevenson at the time. So once this light bulb went off in my brain, I ran back to my boss’ office and said, “Can I start an Alternative Break program and take students to go with me to New Orleans, because if I can’t go myself, lemme like ripple-effect this and bring other people with me.” And so my boss was like, “yeah, if that’s what you want to do in your free time, go for it!”
So, as an admissions counselor who had no business with student affairs or student activities or anything like that, I started talking about this idea, and conveniently and ironically and I think destined, two professors were also talking about wanting to have a class that was an original service-learning class at Stevenson where they would talk about project management and then help to work on a house… …and I think they meant in Baltimore. So thankfully there was this other woman, who I refer to as the godmother of Mission I’m Home, Chris Noya, who knew I was talking about wanting to go to Louisiana, and knew Art and Romus were talking about wanting to do this class, and she thought “well the three of them need to get together.”
So we got together after a faculty/staff meeting in August… So, I know Art and Romus… I don’t remember this, but I apparently half-cry-laughed the entire conversation and pleaded with them to help me to do this, and they were like, “whoa, this girl has a lot of energy and a lot of emotion, and we should probably not say no to her because we don’t want to see what would happen.”
And so that was in August, and then that first year we were here in March and we stayed in a church in Metairie… we didn’t know where else… I don’t know why, I guess SBP must’ve told us about this church, because I don’t know how else we would’ve found it. We didn’t know about you all yet, sorry. I don’t know if you were… I guess you guys were up and running… in 2009?
Jostes: We were rolling.
Somerville: Your March game was off, then… somehow didn’t get to us, so there ya go. But we’re all here now, so it’s OK.
So we stayed at a church in Metairie and then we worked at St Bernard Project and we drove [down] that first year… We put everyone in a seatbelt, but they were like shoulder-to-shoulder with people they had never met, 19 students gave me $325 and trusted me… they did not know each other, I don’t know how I got the word out, but it happened.
We drove to Athens, TN, because I thought that sounded funny, and we stayed in a Holiday Inn, and I had them count off by fours, and then said, “OK, you four in a room, you four in a room and you four in a room.” So students who didn’t know each other slept in beds with one another because when I went on trips with my gal pals I didn’t mind sharing… I don’t know how I didn’t… why no one else helped me think this through… But they all did it… the boys did not… the boys slept one on the bed, one in the bathtub, and one on the floor. And so, then we got up the next morning, and I said, “OK whatever you can eat at the hotel free breakfast is your meal until we stop for lunch, so like, load up.”
Holiday Inn has those crazy cinnamon rolls, so the students ate like nine of them each. So we go and get to New Orleans… when we drove through and drove across Lake Pontchartrain, I remember being so pumped, and obviously crying because I’m a crier, because I knew how important this was and I knew the work that was so important and I knew my students were going to be impacted so tremendously. I had no idea how much, but I knew it was going to be big, so I was pumped.
The students were all exhausted and were sick of being in the vans with one another, but they were like, OK, Morgan is excited, so let’s get on with it.