Friday, December 18, 2009

New Orleans Trip January 2008 Blog Posts

These are from my second trip to the coast after the hurricanes, to New Orleans in January 2008:

Day 6: Goodbye from New Orleans
Tonight is our last night in New Orleans, and most of the team has gone to bed in preparation of our 3 AM wake-up call for our airport run. We wrapped up our trip with a Mardi Gras parade that started right in front of our bunk site, and dinner on Magazine Street. All in all, it's been a good experience. We've been a little frustrated at times, but I guess you couldn't expect anything else with a trip like this.

I still haven't been able to gauge why all 16 of us came down. I'm guessing that you'd get similar responses from each of us, something along the lines of "I wanted to come down previously" or "I wanted to see how things are for myself" or "I felt like I could do something to help others"...I actually came down for a couple of reasons: first, because I'd been to Biloxi last year with the original group from Seattle Works and I wanted to help a new group of volunteers share in a similar experience. Second, I wanted to see how New Orleans was coming along. If you manage to even hear something related to Katrina or Rita these days (2.5 years later), it's usually about New Orleans. I'd visited the Lower 9th Ward on the Biloxi trip, but I wanted to get in there and do something. The fact that it took me 12 months to come back is a little frustrating, but as someone said to me last night, "you came back."

Today, I got to go back to Biloxi to visit some of the places I'd helped with a year earlier. It was like going home again. I remembered exactly how to get to the base site from the airport, and how to get to the project sites where we de-molded a house on the first day. I remembered where we stopped for breakfast that first morning, and drove by the bar that we all would go to after work each day. I got to drive across the bridge into Pascagoula (a bridge that was un-traversable 12 months ago) and see a playground that another one of my teammates had helped build. We were both surprised how easily we remembered where things were. We agreed it was an indication of just how powerful our previous trips down to the Gulf Coast had been for us.

As for this particular trip, there were a lot of things happening for each of us individually and as a group. I've been encouraging others to post on the blog, and several have. And I know that many just want to take the time to reflect on what they've experienced prior to telling the rest of the Seattle Works world about it. Those folks will 'speak out' in their own time. I've tried to post each day if there was something I wanted to say. Now, just a few hours before we leave, I thought I'd go ahead and talk a little bit about how grateful I am for this opportunity. I'm glad I got the chance to travel and volunteer with these 15 people. I tried to move myself around on different projects, especially if we were split up, just so I could at least work alongside most of them. I didn't get to know them all as well as I would have liked, but the fact is that they all sacrificed something to come here. And that makes each of them special in my mind.
I'm also glad I got to meet some great people from other places and other companies. Groups from Kaiser Permanente and Shell Oil. Places like Hawaii, Maine, Boston (HARVARD!), Wellesley College, Los Angeles, Sacramento, New York, and yes, even a few random people from Seattle and Washington. Again, all made sacrifices to be here, and have earned a special place in the hearts of people here in New Orleans.

But I think what I'm most thankful for is the opportunity to be here, and see this city up close and personal. I got to experience my first Mardi Gras parade. I spoke with a gentleman who wants to turn a vacant lot he recently purchased into a community garden, in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city. The "Human Jukebox", now in his 49th year of performing, honored me with a rendition of 'Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay'. I had one of the tastiest hot dogs I've ever had, purchased from a street vendor outside the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street, even when I was warned not to do so. Actually, I ignored that warning twice on the same night, and I've lived to tell about it.

And I got to meet Shelton Alexander, aka the African-American Shakespear, one of the people interviewed in Spike Lee's movie "When the Levees Broke." He came and spoke to the group on Friday night at our base site, and it was overwhelming to hear him. He had been in the SuperDome after Katrina hit. He saw a lot of things that he himself is still trying to come to terms with. He talked about his work in the schools here in New Orleans, and his message was tinged with fear for the youth here, with hope that they can indeed overcome the burdens placed in front of them, and anger towards those who are responsible for those burdens. He performed a few of his poems for us, and stayed as long as we had questions. When it was done, we gave him a standing ovation. Then he stayed longer to talk with us one-on-one. He sacrificed things to get to us through the Mardi Gras madness, and spent more time with us than I'm sure he bargained for. But in the end, as he put it, it all happens for a reason. So I am also grateful to him, for taking that time with us and with me.

He talked a little about pain. There's an awful lot of pain here. I learned on this trip that it's not all related to Katrina. There are buildings or homes in just about every neighborhood south of Lake Pontchartrain that look burned out or bombed out, and not all of it's because of the hurricane. Many of those places stood abandoned before Katrina. The poverty in this city is striking, more so than any other major city I've ever visited in North America. I think what strikes me most about it is that it doesn't exist just in one area or neighborhood. It exists right next to the hotels on the waterfront, or the bars on Bourbon Street, or the fancy restaurants littered throughout the west end of the city. It co-exists. And these people, these beautiful people, will smile at you. Look at you, and bless you, and sing a song to you, and heap praise on you for coming to help them. They will tell you their story, and even if it sounds like so many other stories you've heard, you will still listen. You will bear witness to their pain--a pain that may have been epitomized by the destruction of their homes by nature and the failure of their government to act in the face of that destruction, but that also existed long before that. You will bear witness because it's all you can do. I personally have never found religion, but there's definitely something spiritual about this place.

It's been a whirlwind week, and I can't believe we'll be on a plane in a few hours. Signing off from the Big Easy!

"I don't know how I feel. But He told me I do."--Shelton "Shakespear" Alexander

Day 5: A day in the city
Anybody remember the scene in Bull Durham where Kevin Costner's character organizes a rain-out by turning on the sprinklers at the field the night before? That's what we had today in New Orleans. We awoke to a pretty steady downpour, which meant many of the projects planned for outside were cancelled. A little ironic, when you think about the fact that all of them came about because of water in the first place. Anyway, today became a day off for many of us, so we decided to spend it doing our own things. Some of us went museum-hopping, while others revisited Bourbon Street and the French Quarter, while a few of our team members ventured deeper into the Lower 9th Ward to take a long, slow look around the most damaged area in the city.

I wrote about the 9th Ward in my blogs for our Biloxi trip last January, so you can check out my thoughts on that (just add the phrase "I can't believe it's been a year since then, and it's still looks like the hurricane went through here last week..."

I took advantage of the day to rest up a little, head downtown and search out some local "dives" in search of sustenance with one of my teammates. I also thought this would be a good opportunity for me to tell you about some of the lighter moments of our week. I gave a glimpse of some of them in an earlier message, but here are some other highlights and details.
  • Our first full day (Sunday) was an adventure in many ways. We all split up and headed towards the French Quarter with some renting cars and others hopping on the street car. After waiting in line at Caffe du Monde for a beignet and latte, me and my breakfast mates decided to just head across the street for some greater sustenance. I've done the beignet thing before, so it wasn't a big deal to skip it this time. Anyway, our restaurant of choice was really busy (it was a pretty day, and people were out in force). Add to that the fact that we all were extremely hungry, tired, in need of caffeine, and hoping to get on with our day, and you'll get the idea that we were in a hurry. So, of course, life decides to slow us down by having the restaurant run out of eggs. Seriously, how funny is that? Does McDonald's ever run out of beef? Would Starbucks run out of breakfast blend beans? Anyway, we eventually got our food, and coffee, and felt much better. And the waitress was so great about the whole thing, we didn't even mind that it took so long. But if you're ever in New Orleans and want to have breakfast across the street from Caffe du Monde at the restaurant on the corner, be sure to ask how their egg supply looks. Or order oat meal.
  • So, we landed in New Orleans on Saturday night, right on time, found our way to baggage claim and even got to the right shuttle location in the airport. All together, no lost luggage, nothing of dramatic incidence. I had a slight moment of panic when the woman said she couldn't take us to our destination because it wasn't a hotel, but another sales rep quickly took care of us. She got us onto a shuttle bus, with all of our luggage, and a driver who was more than happy to give us door-to-door service, instead of dropping us off a few blocks away as the original sales rep had suggested. I gave our driver the address, walked back to my seat, and promptly drifted off to sleep on the bus. Twenty-five minutes later, he pulls up to the admin building for Hands On New Orleans. This would have been perfect...if that was where we were supposed to be. Turns out we had two addresses in our information. One was for the admin building (which was on the sheet containing the shuttle info), and the other was for the housing site (which was in our volunteer packet and I hadn't bothered to look at for weeks). The housing site also just happened to be on the other side of the city. Ooops. So, after another twenty-five minutes or so in the shuttle, a somewhat miffed driver, and a huge tip, we arrived at our destination about 90 minutes after landing. The immediate lessons were that I should pay more attention to details like where the heck are we supposed to go, and that I had a very forgiving group of travel-mates. :-)
  • And finally, today one of my teammates and I got to play travel guide to a group of 10 elderly tourists from Nova Scotia. They were having a heck of time figuring out the street car routes, and desperately wanted to get to the WWII museum. So in true volunteer fashion, we walked them over to the proper stop, boarded the car with them, and told them which stop to get off at and which direction to go to reach the museum. Not bad for having just been in the city for four days. It could be my next career choice, but I don't think I could stand the humidity down here.
All in all, it's been an interesting trip. Lots to think about, and lots to see and learn. I still think I could have done more. We'll see how tomorrow, our last volunteer project day, goes. If there's one thing I learned in Biloxi last year, it's that we can't do it all, no matter how hard it is to realize that. You want every family to back in their homes. You want every child to be back in their classrooms. You want every pet to be reunited with their owner. But we do what we can while we're here, and hope that there are others to continue. It is not up to us to finish the work, and yet, we are not allowed to avoid it.

Day Four: School, or Prison?
I think I mentioned in my first posting that some people refer to the schools here in New Orleans as 'prisons' instead of schools. While this past Monday (MLK Day) was more about getting work done at the schools while the kids and teachers were away, today we had an opportunity to go back and finish many of the projects we had started...only this time, students, teachers and security guards were all present.

Now, I realize that these kids are there every day, and the teachers and security guards are there every day, and I simply DO NOT know what the real situation might be for any of these people. All I know, is what I saw. Here's what I saw:

I saw a student being pulled out of one of the trailers/classrooms, with his hands zip-tied behind his back, while two security guards screamed profanities at him. I saw a teacher (I'm guessing she was a teacher because she didn't have a badge) yell across approximately 40 feet of open space at a small group of students to "sit the hell down on the bench!", while grasping a baseball bat. I saw small groups of students being "let out" of the front gate at certain points for what I'm guessing was lunch or recess, or maybe gym class. The gate I refer to is part of the 10-foot high chainlink fence that surrounds the campus. I saw a group of high school girls get stopped by a female security guard with a not-so-friendly 'where do you think you're all going?' I saw young people being exactly that, young people trying to establish an identity for themselves by being, for lack of a better word, punk-ish...maybe even crude. Many behaved in ways that I wouldn't necessarily call appropriate, and I am not afraid to admit that I would probably steer clear of them if I came across them on a Seattle street. But today, I said hello to these kids as they passed within inches of me on the sidewalk. I got a smile back from a few of them, even a "thanks for making this place a little brighter" from others. And I saw a young girl stop what she was doing and help one of our team members plant flowers in the potting box we'd built near that stupid gate. As I saw these things throughout the day today, I started to wonder if the fence was there to keep people out, or to keep the students in. And that word, "prison", crept back into my mind. I worry about every single one of those kids I saw today. The dark side of my brain wonders if they even have a future, if their world (already a turbulent place before the hurricane) depends so much on outsiders to provide a little brightness and color to this environment. This was a SCHOOL (really take a moment to consider what that word means), but it did really feel like a prison...

New Orleans, Day 3
Yesterday, most of us spent the day in the Lower 9th working on 3 houses with Rebuilding New Orleans. Apparently, the NBA will be doing some huge Day of Service when they are here for All-Star weekend in February, and they needed the houses prepped. That meant priming the exterior--for those who've never done this, consider yourselves lucky--caulking the external cracks of the homes, and removing the shutters from the homes to prep them for a nice coat of paint. The weather finally warmed up for us (we hit 73 yesterday), which made it nice and not so nice at the same time. Priming a wall with a Southern exposure in humid warmth is a task.
A few of the funnier moments so far: several of us have managed to figure out the street car system (when I say "figure out" I mean standing at the stop waiting patiently for the next one to go by, as you watch several go by in the opposite direction); my second time on the street car, we got in an accident; the choice of Justin Timberlake's "Sexy Back" as the first wake up song of the week by two members of our group (I'll avoid making too much of an editorial comment on that, but COME ON); the 'car miracle' that a few of us heard about at church on Sunday (can I get an AMEN?); and a couple of members of the group getting lost on the waterfront while looking for their rental car...for a few hours...I know, it's not 'funny' ha-ha, but...well, actually, yeah it is.

Today, we're heading back to Carver High and Elementary schools to finish up the work from Day one. More later...

Day Two from New Orleans
Today we're supposed to be part of a larger group helping at a Rebuilding New Orleans site. Should be a good chance to get down and dirty. We expect to be pretty sore tonight!

Day One: Concrete and gravel
Can you imagine an elementary school without swings? Without a see-saw, or a set of monkey bars? No merry-go-round? Just white trailers, concrete and gravel. That's what the 350+ students of George Washington Carver Elementary School in the Gentilly district of New Orleans have for a school. And it's surrounded by a 10-foot wire fence, adjacent to their gutted school building. A building that shows no signs of rebuilding. Today, the 16 of us spent the day making this "prison" (the kid's word, not ours) a little brighter. We painted some murals that will be hung in the halls and on the grounds. We labeled the buildings with letters so that kids and parents would know where in the heck they were supposed to go. We built flower beds, and garbage can holders, and benches that will be painted in the school colors of orange and green. The students, parents, teachers, and principal all show pride in these colors...Go Rams!

We were part of a much larger effort at 4 schools in the city, as part of MLK Jr Day of Service in New Orleans. I'd been involved in the efforts locally in Seattle over the years, but today felt very different. It wasn't just about invoking the words of Dr. King. It was about living them. Today, we got to see what a small group of people can do when banded together with other small groups of people. When those kids get to school tomorrow, they'll see a new 4-square plot. They'll have a new hopscotch pad. They'll actually have something to look at besides a gray sidewalk, with gray buildings, surrounded by gray gravel and concrete. We won't be there to see their faces because we'll be off to another project. But these kids are looking at at least 2 more years in this place (that's being generous). It was a great way to start the week.

"Come back someday, and let us be hospitable to you."--Ms. Cynthia, the Literacy Project Director at Carver Elementary.

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