Monday, April 1, 2013

New Orleans!

Over Spring Break (already over a week ago! I can't believe its been that long) I had the opportunity to go to New Orleans with a group from Wellesley Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. It was an amazing trip! It was  also exhausting, and part of me regretted it a little bit when I got back after break even more exhausted than before I left. It was worth it, though.

The main thing we did while we were in New Orleans was work with an organization called Project Homecoming, which is a fairly small organization that was started after Katrina to address the need for houses to be repaired and replaced. It is one of the few such organizations that is still up and running now, many have closed in the years since the storm. There is still so much work to be done. There are families even now (8 years later!) that have not been able to move back to the city. There are also families that are living in substandard conditions because they have not been able to fix their houses. My group was working on a house that was abandoned and had been sitting empty for years. After the storm many families decided to give up their homes or land to the government and move elsewhere rather than trying to fix it themselves. The government owns hundreds of blighted homes and empty plots of land where houses had to be torn down, so sometimes they give these properties to organizations (like Project Homecoming) to rebuild.

It was an amazing (but hard!) week of work. We learned lots (like how to use dangerous power tools and assemble walls and properly put away air hoses so they don't have kinks in them).

Our work site for the week.

I promise, I usually wore safety glasses. Just not
when this picture was taken...

In the process we learned a lot about each other and had some great conversations about our lives, both within our team and with other members of the community. One day we had the opportunity to talk to a couple who live in the neighborhood we were working in, just a few houses away. It turns out that the husband works with another organization that helps families rebuild their homes, especially when they have dealt with contractor fraud. It was pretty chilly and rainy that morning (we were working outside all week) and they brought us hot chocolate and cookies. It was so nice of them! One day we were also invited to the new homeowners current (rather small) apartment for lunch, and we got to hear some of her story. It was really nice to even a small part of the impact we were able to have on her life and in the neighborhood.

We also learned about the city. On Sunday (the day after we arrived) we went on a bus tour. It was nice to see more of New Orleans, but it was very sobering as well. We drove through some neighborhoods that are full of empty lots where houses used to be, or "blighted" houses that can't be lived in and haven't been torn down or fixed. It was difficult to look at all of the marks still on houses listing who searched the house after the storm, when it was searched, any dangerous conditions found inside the house, and whether any bodies were found in that particular house. It was so sad to see those marks because that meant that house has been standing there abandoned for these past 8 years. We also looked at some of the new levies and learned about some of the factors (many caused by human actions) that caused the storm to be so destructive.

This is a memorial showing the water level during
the flood compared to the frame of a house.

Of course, we also got to have some fun while we were there. We got beignets and cafe au lait from Cafe Du Monde. We walked around and took silly pictures and saw some interesting people (including many palm readers and a woman who was using a flaming hula hoop). We spent some time by the river, and I marveled at the fact that the Mississippi river is all the way down there too. (I know that sounds silly, but I'm from Minneapolis, and the Mississippi runs right through our city. I've never seen it from anywhere else before.) We also went out to eat, watched a random dance group for a while while eating our beignets, and generally explored the French Quarter. I love going new places and experiencing new cultures (and eating their food!).

While I was at Cafe Du Monde (for the second time, actually) I also saw a group from my high school (in Minneapolis.) I had known they were going to be in New Orleans the same time as me, but I didn't think there was any way that we would see each other. I am glad to say that I was wrong! It was a fairly short encounter, but they were the first people I had seen from home in a while. It was wonderful to have even such a small taste of home while I was so far away. I have really been missing my friends and family lately, so it was a wonderful time to run into them.

I made lots of new friends on this trip. 19 students from Wellesley went, only 4 or 5 of which I knew before. It amazed me how well we got to know each other after only a week! There is something magical about the combination of travelling, volunteering/working, having adventures, and living in not so wonderful accommodations that cements friendships faster than anything else I have experienced. That is something that we can all take back to campus with us. The trip itself may be over, but many of the things we learned and the friendships we made will last for much longer. That has always been one of my favorite parts about trips like this.

I really wish I was able to tell you all every detail (but I also know that none of you would read a blog post that long!). I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel and have all of these adventures, but even more importantly to devote a week of my time to serving others. It makes me wonder why I devote so little time to serving the community where I am right now. I think experiences like this can be a good reminder to not only serve those far away, but to recognize the needs in our own backyards and do what we can to help. We are all so fortunate to have all of the things that we do, and there is always somebody somewhere, whether in Louisiana or in the room down the hall, that could use our help.