New Orleans, LA
It seems like a long trek to New Orleans, and it’s certainly an exhausting commute, but the importance of the Alternative Spring Break trip to New Orleans is immeasurable.
In the afternoon of Friday, March 14, fourteen near-strangers met at Hoot ‘N’ Scoot to load up the three minivans which would soon be affectionately referred to as “The Mullet” (business in the front, flow in the middle, and party in the back). Through a long night of driving, countless Snapchat battles, and a quick mid-trip overnight in Knoxville, we made it to our destination on Sunday night for a quick orientation with the United Saints Recovery Project.
The United Saints was established in 2007 when founder Daryl Kiesow decided to leave his home and roofing career in Minnesota to work full-time assisting the city of New Orleans recover from the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina. With a particular emphasis on the importance of education during service, co-leader Jessica French and I knew we were leading our group into a life-changing week. After all, the NOLA trip is prone to creating passionate returners who have caught the United Saints bug, like Jess and myself.
On Monday morning, our 6:15 a.m. wake-up call was livened by senior David Draper who happily ran around our apartment singing, “Good morning, good morning! It’s great to stay up late!” as he flicked on light switches. We laced our sneakers and headed across the street to the United Methodist Church, located on the corner of First and Dryades, where the United Saints operate from, for breakfast and work assignments. We were assigned Ms. Stokes’ house, which the Saints had been working on for almost four years.
It was a project that had constantly run out of money, but they were finally ready to finish up the exterior.
We drove through the city until we reached the home in the West Bank, far below two massive bridges which run across the Mississippi and cast a shadow over the neighborhood.
We parked and all stood in awe, looking above at the massive steel structure we had just crossed before exiting the highway. As business life buzzed by above, we prepared for a long day of scraping paint in the Louisiana sun.
At the end of the day, we toured the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the most impoverished communities in the country both pre and post-Katrina, as well as the community most affected by the storm.
It exists in the shadow of the levee, below sea level, where the levee broke in the days following Katrina, wiping out nearly the entire population. As the ninth anniversary nears, many in the group were stunned to see the desolation which remains.
The “stairways leading to nowhere” are the most haunting, where entire homes and foundations are wiped away but the concrete stairs which once lead to a front door. Empty lots, overgrown yards and debris litter the neighborhood for acres where homes previously lined the streets. On the far end of the neighborhood sat the “Brad Pitt houses,” which are massive structures intended to create safer living conditions for Lower Ninth Ward residents. They are controversial because of the modern architecture which fails to represent traditional New Orleans homes.
They are a piece of a larger conversation we had all week: when does service do more harm than help? Is it beneficial to the communities we work in to drop in and leave with little knowledge of the culture or real needs of the people you’re helping?
We don’t think so. It’s why we do what we do.
We spent the rest of the week hearing from homeowners, becoming an elite team of fencers as we dug holes and poured cement for fence posts, and teaching a French volunteer about American pop culture and slang. We stood at the top of the levee and watched the sun set over the Mississippi. We ate real gumbo, alligator and crawfish. We witnessed a real Mardi Gras celebration in our Central City neighborhood on St. Joseph’s Day, where Mardi Gras Indians danced in the streets in their elaborate hand-sewn costumes, celebrating the last true cultural event untouched by tourism in the city. We met Mack Ward who has spent the past eight years building a community center for children in the Lower Ninth Ward who are often left unattended in dangerous neighborhoods after school instead of rebuilding his own home.
By the final early-morning sing-along before breakfast, the team was already plotting a scheme to stay. We fantasized about being runaways and spending the indefinite future staying with our friends at the United Saints for the indefinite future. By the time we packed the vans for the long journey home, several of us had already decided we’ll be back this summer.
We experienced one of those incredible life-defining moments in New Orleans. We went to serve and hopefully contribute something to the community we worked in, but left with new friendships and a better understanding of the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina after all these years, despite the nation’s diverted attention. But more than anything, we left with the sense of hope we gained from the genuine and inspiring people we met in New Orleans.
Allie Bedell can be contacted at email@example.com