By George Tatoris
The smells and sounds of New Orleans — hot jambalaya and cool jazz — percolated the Decker Social Space on Wednesday, March 29, where the Alternative Break Club hosted its seventh annual Mardi Gras Masquerade.
ABC organized the event to share the essence of the Big Easy with the campus community through authentic food from Beck’s Cajun Café in Philadelphia and a live jazz band, Patricia Walton and the Jazzin’ All Stars. While the All Stars performed and food was served, the College’s Swing Dance Club danced the night away.
Although the tone of the music was warm, like the city itself, underneath the upbeat tempo ran a bluesy undercurrent. The event’s main purpose was to raise awareness for the city’s persistent struggle to come back from Hurricane Katrina. Twelve years later and there is still work to be done.
“There’s a lot of issues that prevented people from coming home and even over a decade later, it’s something that they’re struggling with,” said Ashley Fuzak, ABC president and a senior secondary education and history dual major.
In addition to the Mardi Gras Masquerade, ABC also organizes three trips to New Orleans — one in the winter, spring and summer — to help rebuild.
Around 90 students go down to New Orleans for the winter trip and between 20 and 30 attend the summer and spring trips, according to Jenn Pagliaro, vice president of ABC and a senior special education and history double major.
During the trips, students work with Project Homecoming, a nonprofit working with the Presbyterian Disaster Alliance and the Presbytery of South Louisiana to rebuild neighborhoods gutted by the hurricane.
The club is also involved in other missions. After Hurricane Sandy, ABC helped a resident of Union Beach, N.J. They also work with Give Kids a World, a nonprofit that gives children with life-threatening illnesses a free Disney World vacation. Despite this, New Orleans is “definitely at our core,” Fuzak said.
New Orleans is constantly fighting forces of nature that wish to reclaim it. Once the hurricane shattered the levees keeping water out of the city, 80 percent of the city was submerged. More than 1,800 people died.
Despite this, there has been some progress. A study held in March 2017 for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau and the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp, stated the city is finally reaching pre-Katrina tourism levels.
The club has worked to improve New Orleans’s condition for more than seven years. Fuzak credits the club’s founders for the large numbers they pull for trips in recent years.
“We’ve had lulls as a club, we’ve had growth as a club. I would say, overall, (the club’s founders) really set the foundation for us to bring down the massive numbers we try to bring down now,” Fuzak said.
The Mardi Gras Masquerade has also grown. When the event first started, the only music played came from an iTunes playlist put together by the club. However, as more students began to attend, the club started bringing in live bands to provide an authentic feel.
For Pagliaro, part of that authentic feel is the attitude of the people. Pagliaro was awed by the residents’ kindness in the face of disaster.
“So many bad things can happen, but you still have this positive attitude and it really makes you reconsider the way that we look at things,” Pagliaro said. “There’s people that literally lost their homes and still have a smile on their face.”
Fuzak saw those smiles her first day in the city. Her job was to survey the city to find houses still damaged by the storm. The kindness of the residents she spoke to let her know she would be back again.
“They asked us if we were OK with Hurricane Sandy,” Fuzak said. “Their neighborhood had been hit in such a hard way, the fact that they had asked how New Jersey was faring after a hurricane was amazing. There’s something about the city that just reels you in.”
Fuzak also acknowledged the members of ABC who helped out in organizing the trips.
“The people that are willing to give up their breaks, donate their cars, give their time and really take in the city for what it is, is something that’s so unique and special,” Fuzak said.
For students who wanted a mouthful of gator gumbo, an earful of New Orleans jazz and a heartful of Big Easy benevolence, ABC hopes the Mardi Gras Masquerade provided all of that.
“We really wanted it to feel like you were in New Orleans because that’s something we all get to experience while we’re there,” Pagliaro said. “We wanted to bring a piece of that to TCNJ to show why it’s so important that we rebuild.”