USC Aiken students aid Hurricane Katrina victims

AIKEN --- Roberto Aragon is giving up a four-day weekend relaxing on his parents' couch for a greater cause.

The University of South Carolina Aiken sophomore and about 50 other students traveled to New Orleans on Wednesday night to spend their fall break rebuilding homes in the area still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

"If I was in that situation, I would hope people would help me even years later," he said. "I hadn't heard anything in the news about it, but there's still destruction there."

Members of IMPACT, a campus community service organization, have traveled to the area since 2006 to help clean debris, tear down dilapidated homes and assist Habitat for Humanity with other volunteer efforts, said Angel Lee, assistant director of student activities. The group also visits a location in need of volunteer help each spring.

"It's become a tradition," Ms. Lee said. "This is a place these students wouldn't get to go to in their college career, and they're getting an idea of what damage is done and how they can help."

The Ninth Ward area of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish are still recovering from the floods from the hurricane in August 2005, Ms. Lee said.

The group of volunteers grows each year, said Maria Pineda, student coordinator for community service.

This year, the students will paint, build and replace roofs on homes in those areas. They will return to Aiken on Sunday, Ms. Pineda said.

Senior T.J. Johnston said he hopes to see more than just the area's devastation in his first trip to New Orleans.

"I imagine I'll see a lot of progress from the time when the floods happened," he said. "I hope there's a lot of unity that comes from us lending a helping hand."

Reach Stephanie Toone at (803) 648-1395 ext. 110 or stephanie.toone@augustachronicle.com.