Traveling the world, exploring the city, or trying something new is all part of the curriculum for students at the Latin School of Chicago. Every year during Project Week, students leave the classrooms to perform a service project or pursue a topic of interest in locations from Iceland to Uruguay.

“The goal is to have students experience something they can’t experience in the classroom,” said Latin Student Life Director Timothy Cronister. “Some are back in Chicago doing yoga classes. Some are hiking along the west coast. Some are even traveling around the world. We have a group in Florence, Italy right now learning art history.”

This year, Cronister planned a bigger trip. After hearing about Hurricane Harvey on the news, he planned a service trip to Houston to help with relief efforts, including helping Mercer Botanic Gardens prepare for its grand reopening and March Mart Plant Sale.

“I haven’t led a trip in a couple of years, because, luckily, we haven’t had any major disasters,” he said.

“When Harvey hit, I talked with my family, and we decided it was time for me to do another trip.”

Cronister has a history of leading service trips to disaster zones. His students have worked in disaster areas such as Joplin, Missouri; Moore, Oklahoma; and Hurricane Katrina-affected areas.

“Usually some of the best kids sign up for these trips,” he said. “They could have been anywhere else, but they chose service and that says a lot.”

Jack Tempone, a 16-year-old junior, was one of the first to sign up.

“I was watching the news one day and there was a woman affected by Hurricane Harvey. I remember her saying, ‘Please help us. We have nothing,’” he said. “When I heard that, I started looking for ways I could become involved.”

Janice Akufo, a 17-year-old senior, said she signed up for her first service trip after hearing about needs faced by so many following the storm.

“It’s sad that two or three months later you stop hearing about the hurricane, even though people are still in need,” she said. “There’s still a lot more work that needs to be done.”

Mercer Volunteer Coordinator Jamie Hartwell said the timing couldn’t have been better when Cronister contacted her about volunteering.

Because of its location along Cypress Creek, Mercer was among the many areas that experienced severe flooding during the hurricane. The east side Botanic Gardens were closed nearly seven months while staff and volunteers worked to restore damaged areas. By the time the students arrived, Mercer was only days away from its grand reopening.

After touring Mercer’s storm-damaged areas, the students spent the day transporting plants for March Mart and working in Mercer’s pole barn. Many students said they were shocked after learning how high the creek rose.

“We were surprised to see how much damage was done by the hurricane. It’s one thing to hear about it on the news and another seeing it in person,” said Georgia Souleles, 16.

Others said they were impressed by the comradery among volunteers.

“I got to see firsthand how people can come together and make a positive change,” said Tempone.

Thanks to the outpouring of support from volunteers, such as the Latin School, Mercer Society President Maryanne Esser said Mercer has made a drastic transformation.

“It took hundreds of volunteers to organize our first major event since the hurricane,” said Esser.

“Despite losing months of growing time and most of our facilities, everyone managed to pull together and make this event a success. We hope to be at full capacity next year and offer even more wonderful plants at the 2019 March Mart.”