MORAGA — Seventeen-year-old Don Palmer strides around the St. Mary's College campus as if he had always been here, waving at friends, queuing in the dining hall and sitting through lectures. But this is no typical college visit.
The scene that unfolded at the Oakland airport last week, and repeated again in St. Mary's classrooms, dorms and basketball courts, was one of joyful reunions between the New Orleans teen and the scores of St. Mary's College students who have made repeated treks to help clear and rebuild homes in his devastated lower Ninth Ward neighborhood.
Together, they celebrated the friendships forged in the rubble left by Hurricane Katrina, and in the hearts of the 65 students and faculty, including Associate Dean Shawny Anderson, who went to help.
The scars of Katrina are indelibly carved across the face of New Orleans' neighborhoods and while many homes have been rebuilt, vast swaths of the lower Ninth Ward are still in ruins, including the police station near Don's home. Still, life — births, weddings and high school graduations — goes on.
"Miss Shawny found out I was a senior in high school," Don said, "and invited me out to California to see if I wanted to come here."
So, Don boarded an airplane for the first time in his life, and flew west to look at a possible future, living and learning alongside the young strangers who first showed up on North Claiborne Saftertreet on Jan. 7, 2006, carrying multicolored hard hats, work gloves and full hearts.
Don and his family fled five hours before the hurricane made land, driving through torrential rain and gusting winds for two days to reach Baton Rouge, 80 miles away. It would be four months before they saw home again.
"It was all standing," he said, "but everything in it was destroyed. We couldn't stop crying. Everything was gone. No pictures. No kind of memories."
When the St. Mary's students arrived, Don's beloved puppy, Smokey, had been missing for months. Don's home and those of his neighbors were filled with debris. And for two weeks, families had been trying to shovel what was left of their destroyed possessions into the street so cleanup could begin.
"I didn't know where (the students) were from, but I was glad they were there," Don said. "We got everything out in one day. And I found my dog between the toilet and the wall. We buried him that day."
"It was," said St. Mary's senior Dave Blanchard, "a powerful day."
Two years and nearly a dozen trips later, St. Mary's students are still in close contact with 90 percent of the families they met during their work clearing and repairing some 40 homes, and building 10 more with Habitat for Humanity.
"We have attachments there," Anderson said. "The 4000 block of Claiborne is our New Orleans home. We are them, and they are us."
Don has spent his time as an honorary Gael going to classes and sleeping in the dorms. He has gawked at the Golden Gate and zigzagged down Lombard with sophomore Obi Uwakah, who made the New Orleans trek last January.
"He just keeps saying, 'I love Cali! I love Cali!'" Uwakah said.
Between the lecture halls, late-night dorm video game sessions and social events, the teenager has become quite the campus darling, said classmate Lindsay Swoboda, who spent two January Term semesters and a spring break working in the Ninth Ward.
"I'm walking around with him and he's waving to people and saying hi," Swoboda said, laughing.
"I don't even know these people."
There's little doubt that part of that celebrity stems from Don's charm, but the NOLA project — as the New Orleans, La., community-service work was dubbed — has become part of St. Mary's lore, not only for its philanthropic impact but for the sense of community it engenders.
"The impact you're creating and the community you make, the chances to work with the same families," said valedictorian Emily Robbins, who has returned four times, "I wasn't expecting."
Another St. Mary's group will head to NOLA in the winter to continue the work, but Anderson is looking outward.
"We're taking our act to Brazil's poorest state to build a playground for a school," she said. "We're going to globalize."
She cocked an eyebrow in Don's direction and asked, "Would you go?"
"Yes," the New Orleans teen said, a grin lighting up his face.
"Yes, I would."
Reach Jackie Burrell at email@example.com.
Read more about St. Mary's College students' experiences in New Orleans at tinyurl.com/5l9wpc.