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Rebuilding in New Orleans Builds Friendships on Campus

Over spring break 2011, Hampshire College carpenter Bill Kalmakis joined the Chameleon Club and Women’s and Queer Services director Emily Rimmer on a trip to New Orleans to rebuild a house in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Rimmer and Chameleon Club members spent their 2010 spring break helping rebuild in the Ninth Ward, through a connection between Hampshire’s Spiritual Life office and the Annunciation Mission in New Orleans. They felt they could get much more done with an experienced carpenter in the group. Soon after that first trip spiritual life director Liza Neal contacted Kalmakis to see if he would donate his time and expertise for the next. “I agreed right away,” he says.

Bill Kalmakis

Everyone involved is happy he did. Not only did he lend a hand as an experienced professional carpenter, but he also taught the students he worked with how to do a staggering array of tasks. 

“I had done stage tech and crewing stuff before, but that was pretty much the extent of my capabilities with a ladder and hammer,” says Sophia Olkhova 08F, a student signer for the Chameleon Club. “Over the course of the trip, I learned how to make ‘stingers’ (cross beams that reinforce roof beams), how to use an electric saw, got better with a hammer—the list goes on!”

“Bill was great, and so patient with us,” she adds.

“Last year I learned quite a lot about siding,” says Leanna Pohevitz 08F, another signer and one of the students who went to New Orleans on the first trip, “But this year, I learned the most about roofing by sitting up there and doing it with him.”

Kalmakis was equally impressed with the students. “By the end, they were literally cutting plywood for me, using the circular saw, nailing plywood down up on the roof, putting in replacement windows—I mean, figuring out angles as far as the hip-rafters were concerned,” he recalls. “Absolutely amazing for a week.”

While working together, Kalmakis and the students got to know each other much better than they could from meeting for two minutes over a repair in a mod. “I see the whole group on campus now, which I never really did before,” says Kalmakis. “It was nice also seeing students in that light.”

“He’s an incredible man,” says Pohevitz. “I immediately scooped him up to be a close friend for life.”

Of course, the most important thing about the trip for everyone was the work done. The house belongs to a man in his seventies, who spent five days on his roof during Hurricane Katrina. After getting together enough money to rebuild his home, he was cheated by a contractor. Still, Kalmakis, Olkhova, and Pohevitz were all struck not only by how grateful he was for their help, but also how friendly. Pohevitz recalls the beans and rice he brought them as one of the highlights of the week.

“I thought it was going to be a fun experience, a good experience, but it turned out much better than what I ever had expected,” says Kalmakis. He notes that the work to rebuild the Ninth Ward is still far from over, adding, “I would go back down in a second.”

“Personally, I will help set up this trip next year again,” says Pohevitz, “and beyond that I really, really hope that someone higher than me steps up and gives the people of New Orleans the support they need.”

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