Alternative Fall Break: UNO Students Serve New Orleans Mental Health Community

Students at the University of New Orleans may have officially had a five-day fall break last week, but some students stuck around campus so that they could serve the New Orleans community.

Every year the Office of Student Involvement hosts an alternative fall break and an alternative spring break, said Dale Malter O’Neill, coordinator of leadership and community service programs.

“It’s basically an opportunity for students who maybe aren’t going on vacation or aren’t working to volunteer to spend those three or four days in the community,” O’Neill said.

Involved students choose a theme around which to center their three days of service work. Last spring, students opted to do coastal restoration work. Last fall, they wanted to help Habitat for Humanity rebuild damaged homes. This semester, students wanted to raise awareness about mental illness, said O’Neill. They wanted to learn more about symptoms, causes and associated challenges — and raise awareness of pervasive mental health issues and available resources in the greater New Orleans area.

Students chose to volunteer with Bridge House, a nonprofit long-term alcoholism and drug addiction treatment center located in Uptown New Orleans, and the National Alliance of Mental Illness, headquartered uptown.

On Thursday, students worked in one of two thrift stores at Bridge House, sifting through bags of donated clothes, shoes and items to see which items could be tagged and sold for funds to help run the former homeless shelter.

On Friday, students volunteered at NAMI headquarters, preparing for a NAMI walk which took place on Saturday afternoon in Audubon Park, where they also volunteered. At the NAMI Center, students met residents and counselors.

“Our students were really passionate about doing something on mental illness. They felt like it was an idea that doesn’t get a lot of attention,” said O’Neill. “I was proud that they were able to look back and say why they had chosen to do what they were doing…They really thought about it.”

Joining the community service efforts were members of the UNO Service Coalition, who do community service projects year-round. Also participating were students who typically juggle work and study during the academic year and can’t participate in year-round service activities. They welcomed the change to provide an intense several days of effort and service, O’Neill said.

All students had to do was sign up and show up for three days of community service and the Office of Student Involvement handled arrangements and the rest, including lunch and transportation.

“I tell students that they go to THE University of New Orleans,” said O’Neill. “And so it is their duty and responsibility to give back to city of New Orleans. And I think they really got the opportunity to do that with this project.”