A group of 52 from the University of Central Arkansas community loaded up March 17 and traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana, to help serve the local community there.

The trip took place during the university’s spring break week and was a part of the UCA Bear Boots on the Ground’s first alternative spring break service trip.

Volunteers were divided up and sent to serve in an elementary school, help paint houses and mow lawns in the community, plant more than 800 trees in the wetlands where past hurricanes have caused harm to the ecosystem, assist at the Arc of Greater New Orleans Bead Center, distribute food at a local pantry and more.

UCA’s Steven Shook, the assistant director for student leadership, was one of the trip’s chaperones.

Shook said he’s visited New Orleans previously but this time was different because it was service oriented.

Previously, he said, he was there as a tourist. He said this trip was more fun because they got to interact with the community directly and experience the local culture firsthand, which allowed both chaperones and students to have a deeper connection to the area.

Shook said his team helped with the tree planting at St. Bernard Parish for the Wetlands.

There, he said, the group connected with retired Louisiana State University professor Rich Goyer, who spoke about the effects the hurricanes have had on the ecosystem throughout recent years.

Shook said Goyer ended up getting “really emotional” and seeing how the past weather events had impacted him directly was cool to hear.

In spite of having to get up every morning at 6, he said, the students had positive, professional attitudes throughout the whole trip.

“Really exceptional jobs from our students,” Shook said.

His opinions were reiterated through the evaluations filled out post-trip by the multiple organizations Bear Boots on the Ground worked with in New Orleans, including Goyer.

“I enjoyed a quality group of students and leaders today,” Goyer wrote.

The group also worked with Love in Action Outreach and Camp Restore.

“The leaders and students were a joy for us to host,” a Camp Restore representative wrote. “Every work site commented how great your students worked.”

Shook said groups like Bear Boots on the Ground are important because a lot of people nowadays don’t see the value in community service.

He said not only do trips like last week’s give students the chance to get out and serve others, but it allows them the opportunity to learn outside of the classroom and put the concepts they’ve acquired in class into action.

“[It's] experiential learning,” Shook said.

Serving, he said, forces everyone to open their eyes to people and other cultures — a valuable connection.

“I think it allows you to be more of a vulnerable leader,” Shook said.

He said he looks forward to continuing Bear Boots on the Ground and the possibility of traveling to other cities.