Oprah rewards students

When national disaster Hurricane Katrina left many in despair, people from across the country left the comforts of home to help in any way they could. Some gave up a few of their favorite things, such as a selling a pair of White Sox World Series tickets to fund a trip to Louisiana to volunteer where help was needed.

On Nov. 21, Oprah’s annual “Favorite Things” show – where a collection of her favorite items over the past 20 years were given to audience members – aired. The audience members were volunteers who had participated in hurricane relief efforts.

Loyola junior Sarah Newsham and sophomore Laura Sienas were two of these lucky audience members. The two spent fall break volunteering in Mobile, Ala., with 102 other Loyola students.

When Newsham returned from the trip, she was filled with feelings of both hope and frustration, knowing that very many people care, but at the same time, knowing she alone could not make much of a difference.

A week and a half ago the two girls, in addition nine other members of the Loyola group that travelled to Mobile, were given the opportunity to participate in The Oprah Show. Little did they know, when they left Loyola at 5:30 a.m. on Nov. 12 for the show’s taping, they would be the recipients of a few of Oprah’s favorite things.

The gifts the audience members recieved included a iPod Video, a Blackberry cell phone, UGG boots, a Burberry toggle coat and purse, a Philip Stein diamond-encrusted watch and a Sony Vaio laptop.

“Eleven of us from Loyola went, out of 104 people on [the] trip,” Newsham said.”I was in a group of four. My friend Alissa wrote in and got me a ticket too … I jumped around like crazy when she told me I got to go with her.”

Before the show started, the guests in the audience listened as their neighbors shared personal stories of what they experienced in Louisiana. As Oprah came onto the stage, the set appeared as though it was set up for a group discussion.

“They kept telling us that they were making last minute set changes and that’s why it took so long,” Sienas said. Moments later, fake snow started falling from the ceiling and walls rose to reveal large Christmas presents.

Oprah described the audience members as American heroes, saying “though she could never repay those who helped, she could give them a little fun.” Audience members screamed, jumped, cried and applauded throughout the show as Oprah showered them with gifts randing from $25 to $1,600.

Newsham and Sienas were surrounded by people who took time away from their comfort levels to help those in need. One woman could not get time off work to volunteer, so she quit her job.

When talking with these other audience members, Newsham felt an immediate connection.

“I got to talk to volunteers from all over the country, some who went down for a few days, others for months,” Newsham said. “When I was sitting there, I knew that these people had seen things only the survivors … and other volunteers had seen … It was never awkward talking to a stranger about what they did or what we did.”

After the initial shock, Newsham began to realize how amazing her experience really was. Oprah’s “favorite things” were a tremendous gift to Newsham.

“A ‘thank you’ is one thing, but showering me and the rest of the audience with thousands of dollars worth of gifts is something totally different,” Newsham said. “I am still a mess of emotions about it. It’s super exciting, but … it’s so much, totally overwhelming. I am really excited about the new computer. And it’s green!”

The Loyola students that immersed themselves in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are planning a gift of their own: collecting money for the school and church they helped during their trip.

“[We hope] it will be a perfect Christmas present for the people [in Mobile,” Sienas said.


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