Earlier in the year I decided to take the plunge and sign up for what is called Alternate Student Break – a group at Northwestern University that organizes about 10 different trips across the Midwest to work on service projects. It means not coming home for break (which means being at NU for almost six months straight for winter and spring quarters), a difficult choice to make. After meeting with my group the first time I was excited, but still wondering if it was the right thing to do. I was chosen for my top trip choice — going to New Orleans to help rebuild houses in the Lower Ninth Ward, the area most damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
We left Chicago on Saturday morning at 7 for a two-day drive to New Orleans. Unexpectedly, the drive ended up being extremely fun. There were 13 of us, including our two student site leaders, all crammed with our belongings into two minivans. We had people from all grade levels, and we had engineering, communications, social policy, theater, linguistics and physics majors. Spending 10 hours straight for two days with people is a great way to get to know them (none of us had ever met before), and the drive down ended up being a great bonding experience. We stayed overnight in a small, prearranged and extremely welcoming church in Memphis, and went out for some great southern home style pulled pork barbecue. In the morning we made a quick stop to walk along Beale St, visited Elvis’ Graceland and saw the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Then we headed out for the last leg to New Orleans.
When we arrived we checked out our new place to stay for the week, another church in Carrollton, La. We had expected to sleep on the floor for the week, so we were pleasantly surprised to be shown a great room full of bunk beds, as well as nice bathrooms and a huge kitchen to make our own food . The next day, early Monday morning, we headed out to our work site, still not really knowing what to expect. When we arrived, we met with the group of people running the site — people who felt the calling to spend months or years living in New Orleans, subsiding on donations or second jobs and organizing the work that needed to be done in the Lower Ninth. They were already extremely welcoming and grateful for our help.
We were split up into smaller groups to head to our individual projects. I was chosen the first day for a “demolition” job.
Three of my group members and I rode in the back of a truck a few blocks away to Mr. Warren’s house. While driving through the neighborhood we saw that many of the houses were still boarded up, with the symbolic bright orange “X” spray-painted on them by FEMA so many years ago, marking the date and any hazards or deaths found in the house after the flooding. When we arrived at the house we saw more of the same. Next door was another house that had a blooming garden in front and two kids playing in the back yard with their dog, but Mr. Warren’s house was completely gutted and still had its “X.”
Our task for the day was to work on the roof. With some direction from a full-time volunteer we gathered some roofing shovels, climbed up a ladder and got to work. We started by taking off all of the old shingles — a back-breaking task using shovels to pry up shingle mats and nails that held them down; it took the entire morning. After lunch we returned to begin repairs on the wood structure underneath, prying up old rotten boards and then cutting and nailing down replacements. The most rewarding aspect about the first day was seeing how much progress we made so quickly, as well as getting to meet the actual homeowner and hear his story.
Tuesday the Northwestern group was relocated and I ended up working with three new people at a different site, this time inside all day. We were doing “mold remediation” — scrubbing every wooden surface with wire brushes and bleach inside a gutted house. We dressed in hazmat suits, goggles and respirators. In any other circumstance it would have been awful, but the people in my group made it fun.
Wednesday I was assigned to another house, Mrs. Shelby’s. We were on ladders and a roof again, this time painting the outside of her house. It was in a similar situation as the others, with some neighboring houses being worked on and others still abandoned. Mrs. Shelby had already redone the inside and had been living there for about a year, while still working on the outside. It was a huge house with a view of the river, and she had tons of Mardi Gras beads and her artwork up in the halls.
On Thursday, I was assigned to the community garden. I wasn’t expecting much actual work, but it was one of our biggest jobs. When we arrived a bit of the field had been cut down, but by the end of the day we had picked up a dumpster full of rocks and glass, mowed the entire field, spread soil in a few patches and planted new seeds. We helped this acre of land grow new life — one of the most symbolic things we could have finished with.
Though we did a lot of work we also had some fun. A few nights and all of Friday we took the street trolleys from our church to downtown New Orleans. We touredBourbon Street and ate a number of awesome restaurants and bars with live music. We went to the famous Café du Monde three times to get some awesome beignets, saw all sorts of fun people and street performers, met other Northwestern groups that happened to be there, shopped at a huge open market, toured Tulane University, saw the grand Mississippi River and the Superdome.
On Thursday night we decided to do something a little different – one of the coolest volunteers at our work site invited us to an Open Mic Night at the Lower Ninth Ward community center. We and two other volunteer groups were there, along with many neighborhood residents hosting a huge crawfish cook-off, and we enjoyed awesome stage performances by residents and volunteers alike. It was so meaningful to get involved on a deeper level with the community, and to hear straight from them a bit about their past and present lives.
One of the most amazing things about our work during the week was to see how the community was growing. One resident described it best, though I can’t quote him directly: The money for each house comes from its resident. The work on each house comes from volunteers just like us. But the life in each house, what makes it a home and what makes it New Orleans again, comes from building up the community in ways that cannot be seen directly.
One of the last things I have to mention is one of the most important parts of the trip, one that I didn’t even expect to happen. Every night after we got back from whatever shenanigans we were up to (i.e. eight hours of hard manual labor, plus hours of walking around and having fun downtown) we had a group reflection. The first couple nights they lasted about an hour, with everybody reflecting a bit on their day, sharing good, bad and funny moments. Then two people each night would share their “life story,” a bit of a synopsis of just about everything they had ever done, including family, growing up, high school, life at Northwestern and why they were sitting with us right now.
It may seem like a bit of a small thing, but it was the most incredible experience of the week. By the end of the week reflection lasted about four hours, and never seemed to be long or tedious. Every single one of us opened up to each other. Life at Northwestern, especially as a freshman, is all about meeting new people, but we don’t often get to know each other very deeply. I’m great friends with a few people in my dorm, including my best friend down the hall, but in many ways my friendships with the people I don’t know as well are a bit superficial. What made ASB incredible was how every one of us opened up so much more than that, because we all simply trusted in our group. There were tears, laughs and, most of all, a new community formed. We are all “ASBest friends” now, and can trust each other with anything.
The last day in New Orleans we decided to go to a museum downtown – “Katrina 5 Years Later.” It served as an incredibly powerful closing to our trip, as well as a reminder of why we were there. We saw videos and pictures of before, during and after the storm, and the huge changes it made. One video showed one of the streets we worked right next to, 10 feet deep in flood water. It reminded me why I was up on a roof, cleaning mold and painting a house — to repair the physical aspect of New Orleans. But the last room in the museum was a set of interviews with locals talking about how their very own community was becoming more and more vibrant day by day, which we had also seen firsthand. I know that physically I accomplished so many tasks there, which is just a tiny step on the long road to building up the area again, but I feel like our involvement with the community did much more.
John Taseff grew up in El Dorado Hills and is now a freshman studying engineering at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., just outside Chicago. His parents are Liz and Rick Taseff of El Dorado Hills.