While at the University of Richmond, Joseph Wilding, ’10, has spent three spring breaks in New Orleans with the Collegiate Disaster Relief Team. The team, consisting of 25 Richmond students, stays in a Ninth Ward community center and volunteers in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, doing everything from cleaning up debris to repairing and painting houses.

While the trip itself takes one week, the CDRT experience lasts much longer. In line with the spirit of civic engagement on campus, CDRT emphasizes understanding the social context of the community in which its members volunteer. To this end, before, during, and after the trip to New Orleans, CDRT members learn about and discuss issues such as poverty and emergency management, and consider how their own backgrounds influence their interpretations of what they see.

Wilding, as one of the leaders of the team, worked throughout the year to coordinate the schedule for New Orleans. One partner was Our School at Blair Grocery, a home school facility for high school level students that converted parts of its land into an urban farm with vegetable gardens, farm animals, and composting sites. CDRT members spent some time helping in the garden.

Though that type of volunteer work is not what initially attracted Wilding — a volunteer emergency medical technician — to CDRT, it is characteristic of the focus on community collaboration that he has come to see as vital in New Orleans’ recovery.

Since his first CDRT trip, Wilding has realized, “ ... that the roots of the problem in New Orleans were not primarily caused by the natural disaster itself," he says. "Katrina simply exposed underlying societal injustices that are particularly prevalent in New Orleans.”

To help this year’s team understand some of those injustices, Wilding organized a visit to a lecture at Tulane University, in which the city's former Chief of Police Eddie Compass spoke. In addition, the group took a tour of levees around the city and saw the disparity between levees that protect the Lower Ninth Ward and those in areas like the French Quarter. Students also visited sites where the team had volunteered in previous years.

Wilding, a Richmond native and a Bonner Scholar, considers it his responsibility to make an impact on communities through volunteer work. “People with education and access to resources have a humane responsibility to advocate on behalf of those who cannot successfully do so for themselves,” he says, pointing out that sustained partnerships with community members through direct service is critical to realizing change.

There’s also a connection, he says, between volunteer work and career development. “Some of our students are interested in serving in the military, while others want to work in community organizing,” he says. “We have students interested in pursuing medicine, law, and business, and others who want to have work experience with nonprofits directly after graduation.”

During his three years on the team, Wilding has seen that the impact of CDRT on members can be life altering. “Participants often return to campus with a new sense of motivation to actively become the change they want to see in the world,” he says.