04/17/2006 at 01:00 AM EDT
It makes me literally ill to return here," says Gwendolyn Carter of New Orleans. She spots a dirty trinket in the wreckage of her family's ruined house in the Ninth Ward and tears flood her eyes: It is the plastic bride-and-groom figurine from her wedding cake. But she is not alone today. A group of 30 African-American students from the University of Delaware, spending their spring break as volunteers for a group called Neo-Underground Railroad, have donned hazmat suits to gut the interior of the four-bedroom house, saving Carter and many of her neighbors thousands in contractor fees. "I just cannot believe you're doing this to help me," Carter tells the crowd. For the young people, the trip has been an eye-opener. "We rode through the white neighborhoods and were shocked," says Brandi Gilbert, 21, a junior. "It doesn't even look like they were hit." Adds grad student David Williams III, 24: "I leave with a sense of humility—and an appreciation of all the Lord has blessed me with."