2008 Service Trip to New Orleans

Final Thoughts

Wednesday, March 19, 2008 8:27 pm by Katie Gomez

katie2.jpgAfter a long 13 hour car ride back to Winston-Salem, I have finally felt like I’ve had enough time to reflect on my experiences from the past week. I have taken away with me two major conclusions that really stuck out to me during my time in New Orleans and now that I am back home at Wake Forest. First of all, I learned so much about the amazing and resilient city of New Orleans and how much more still needs to be done there, and I also learned what it truly means to be a member of the Wake Forest Community.

These days, with our busy lives and schedules it is so easy to forget about what is still going on in New Orleans; I was aware that there was still work to be done, however I was unaware of the continuing gravity of the situation. After coming home and telling people about all the still-devastated areas of New Orleans and how much work still needs to be done, it was amazing to see how many people were shocked that the city wasn’t “back to normal” now. Although there are some areas such as the French Quarter and Downtown area which have more-or-less returned to pre-Katrina status, there are many others which still have an eerie feel to them, because it is not back to normal… it’s about as far from normal as you can get. People in the St. Bernard’s Parish, Lower Ninth Ward, even Lakeview (a middle-class neighborhood) are just moving home, or are living in trailers in front of their old houses, waiting for them to be gutted and fixed-up; some, but not many, businesses are opening up in these areas, and when you drive through these neighborhoods, it looks like the storm hit just a few weeks ago, not 2.5 years ago. That’s probably the scariest part… it’s been so long, yet there is still SO much to be done. However, it was made clear to us, that as long as groups like us continue to come down and help rebuild the city, it will start to fully return to the way it was within a few years.

After speaking with various New Orleaneans, it was also made clear to us, that the message we should and will bring back with us, is that even with all of this devastation in the surrounding neighborhoods of the city, New Orleans IS up and running. The only way that this city will continue to survive is if people continue to come and visit it… whether it be for service or tourism, it is truly an amazing city and no matter why you are visiting, it is a place that you can easily fall in love with. After only spending a few days there, I vowed to return to the Big Easy to do more service and help revive it to its full potential. Most of our group shared this same sentiment, and many of us hope to return together sometime during the upcoming summer.

Finally, this week has also shown me what it means to be part of the Wake Forest Community. The outreach and support that we received from Wake Forest alumni and parents while we were in New Orleans was truly amazing. It’s not often that someone is willing to bring in and feed 18 hungry college kids in their home or take them out to dinner. It made our experience in New Orleans that much more meaningful, because we realized that not only were we helping the community of New Orleans, but we were helping those of Wake Forest. It was great to feel such Demon Deacon pride as we helped out those in need! Thank you again to the Wake Forest alumni and families who met with us in New Orleans… we couldn’t be more grateful!!

Monday, March 17, 2008 3:38 pm by Elisabeth Collins

elisabeth2.jpgYesterday, our New Orleans experience came to a close. When I arrived back on campus, I had time to reflect on all that I had seen and experienced over the past week, and I realized that there is a lot that needs to be shared. The people I had the chance to meet over these seven days all had incredible stories, both uplifting and heart-wrenching. Yet, every single person was glad to share their story, and wanted to get the word out about their beloved New Orleans. The amount of pride that New Orleaneans have for their city is incredible – and yet, the amount of anger they have towards their government is also staggering. So much progress has been made towards rebuilding “Nawlins” and yet, certain areas still need an immense amount of recovery. It appears that much of the recovery progress is based on socio-economic standing, and for that reason, areas such as St. Bernard (which was 100% destroyed by Katrina) are still very much in the beginning stages of recovery. When driving through St. Bernard and the lower ninth ward, most of the houses are abandoned and almost all of them are marked with a spray-painted X indicating how many dead were found after the flood waters had gone down. The image of the number 8 spray-painted in the bottom section of the X on a completely devastated house will remain with me for the rest of my life.

However, this post was not supposed to be a depressing recount of the tragedy that occurred, but rather a commentary on the wonderful people I met, and what they wanted me to bring back to the Wake Forest community. I think the main message that residents such as Sandy (a woman whose house we helped to rebuild) wanted us to bring back with us is that New Orleans and its people are alive and kickin’. Their houses may have been destroyed but their spirits are still there, and they have the drive to get this city back to pre-Katrina standards. Even though Sandy’s house was completely destroyed by 10 feet of water, she would recount with a huge smile her anecdote that when she walked into her house after the water was drained, she encountered a 12 foot alligator. Apparently, it took 7 full-grown men to move that alligator from her house, to a van. It is stories like these that reflect the positive attitude and, quite frankly, the awesome culture that is alive and well in New Orleans. And really, you will not understand the uniqueness of this city until you visit. So please, VISIT, because tourism is one of New Orlean’s main areas of revenue and the more tourists they get, the more money that can be allocated to rebuilding people’s houses, such as Sandy’s.

And so, it is through volunteers and donations and tourism that these areas, which house some incredible people that deserve to be able to start their lives over, can be rebuilt. The praise and thanks that we received from the residents of New Orleans was overwhelming. Every person I met was so thankful for the time we were spending, and one woman even told us that we were “her inspiration.” Yet, to me, it is the people of this incredible city that are my inspiration. The amount of hope and pride that these residents possess after such a tragedy is inspiring, and I only hope that I can take with me their spirit and appreciation for what they have and apply it in my life. New Orleans and its people have a special place in my heart.

Time to reflect

Monday, March 17, 2008 3:32 pm by Amy Bachman

amy4.jpgFinally home after the long 14 hour drive yesterday I have found time to reflect on my experience in New Orleans this past week. Last night as I sat around with my friends I attempted to explain all that I saw and did this past week, to say the least I don’t think I did it justice. Going on two hours of sleep and lots of coffee I jumped from story to story. As other students have said this past week does seem like a blur, the days seem to run together and trying to explain everything that we did seems daunting.

What I want to do is to begin to explain the stories of last week that are not as exciting or funny, not the stories that I rattled off to my friends but the stories of the people that I met that deserve serious reflection. As many students have said, New Orleans is still hurting; nearly 3 years after the disaster people are still not yet home. The love that the people of New Orleans have for their city and culture is unlike anything I’ve experienced in any other city. The pride they have for their culture is inspiring and experiencing the city first hand I felt my self swept up in it as well. The city motto of “la joie de vivre” ( joy of living) is truly unique to New Orleans, the people there really enjoy life and I am not just talking about Mardi Gras and Bourbon St, they embrace life each day in all the neighborhoods.

This being said, to have this city and culture that they love so much, destroyed by the hurricane is a devastation greater than I feel I can comprehend. It was reiterated by countless people that I met that people do not leave New Orleans or move away, families stay for generations because its more than home it’s a way of life. My heart goes out to those who had to leave during the storm or move away and have yet to move back to their great city. I met many people who are still living in FEMA trailers waiting for their houses to be rebuilt. And this rebuilding, by the way, is not being done by the government its being done by volunteers. Yet as others have said the amount of help untrained volunteers like us can be is minimal because most houses have moved passed the gutting phase and need trained professionals to reconstruct their homes.

I think some of the saddest stories of the storm are those people who are still struggling to come home. One specific story that stands out in my mind was at the St. Bernard Community Center I met a woman as she was coming in to get information about housing. We started talking and I asked her about where she was living and she told me that before the storm she lived in an apartment in the area but had to move to Alabama in the aftermath. She is still living in Alabama. Her apartment, she told me, was one of the first things to be rebuilt in her area but the rent of her apartment literally doubled, making it so she could not afford to move back. For two and half years she has been trying to come back to New Orleans, to her home but she can’t and has received no help in this. Her story is the story of thousands of people who just do not know how to get back to their lives before the storm. The thing that touched me most about talking with her was that I think I may have been the first times in awhile at least that she had even had anyone to talk to about her story. She had a 13 year old son with her, who was extremely uninterested in any of her problems and obviously did not understand even his own situation. The children affected by the storm are another issue that will be present for years down the road because the psychological damage they have experienced is immense.

I could go on and on about different encounters with people I has last week but to conclude I will attempt to point out the hope in the area. New Orleans is on its way to being rebuilt. The French quarter almost seems as if nothing ever happened, it is as vibrant and fun as am sure it always was. The city is healing and as much as it needs volunteers to come help it rebuild, it needs tourists to come and enjoy the city. So go to New Orleans and see what is there, I promise you will not regret it.

And lastly I want to thank the trip leaders, Devin and Kapy and our amazing advisor Jen for giving us all the opportunity to see New Orleans and for working so hard through so many setbacks to make the trip an amazing experience for us all. Also a huge thanks to all the Wake Alumni and Wake families that took us in and truly made us feel welcome in their great city, thank you for your hospitality! And finally a big thanks to the organizers of this blog, Kim McGrath for creating this page for us to share about our trip, without it so many opportunities and reflection would not have been possible. And thanks to everyone on the trip, I’m glad I had such good people to share such an amazing week with!

Final Thought

Sunday, March 16, 2008 11:37 pm by Matt Triplett

matttrip.jpgAs we were driving home today, I had the opportunity to reflect on everything that we got to do this week. Looking back, the trip seems to mesh together in a whirlwind of driving (and getting lost!), volunteering, and exploring the city. One thing that stands out, however, is the way in which the people of New Orleans talk about their experiences. Every person that I came across through both volunteer work and social interaction had a unique and different story to tell. From the Wake alumna that took us to a spectacular dinner on Saturday night to the residents of St. Bernard’s Parish, we collected so many personal memories and stories. I’ll never forget how proud those people were of their city, and how proud they were of us for helping them to rebuild it. A common thread I came across in conversations with New Orleaneans I was volunteering with was the disappointment and frustration they felt with their local, state, and national government. I really sensed a feeling of abandonment, which makes perfect sense. Instead of being bitter and angry, though, they did nothing except lavish praise on us for the small amount of work that we were able to do. With all that said, I think that the most valuable effort I was able to contribute to the city of New Orleans was to provide an ear for people to talk to. Yes we pulled weeds and hung sheet rock and cleaned yards and distributed food, but the most important work we did was to help heal the emotional wounds that linger in New Orleans. Like the beads which hung from the trees along Napoleon Avenue near our house, a deep feeling of grief and frustration still resides in the Crescent City, and I can only hope that our week there did something to alleviate that feeling for the residents we came into contact with.

Looking Back

Sunday, March 16, 2008 11:05 pm by Lisa Northrop

lisa1.jpgSo it is Sunday night and we got back into town around eight o’clock, and after unpacking and doing a couple loads of laundry, I had plenty of time to think about and reflect on what we have done the past week. The whole experience was so amazing that it is hard to say everything that needs to be said. In one way, this trip was a once in a lifetime experience, yet on the other hand, it is something I want to do all over again next year. I have learned so much, so here are a few things that all of you reading this should know:

New Orleans is a wonderful city, full of culture, pride, family, and traditions.

I learned that spray paint on the sides of houses was a form of communication. For instance, the numbers and words in the X’s represented the date the house was rescued, who rescued them, how many people in the house, and how many were dead. TFW was also a common sign, meaning Toxic Flood Waters.

Whole neighborhoods were destroyed–even middle-class communities were almost deserted, and so were whole shopping centers and parks.

The community of Saint Bernard was one of the hardest hit areas, having flood waters and damage higher than any other city in the history of the United States.

Although surfaces of some things seem put together, there is still a lot of maintenance that needs to continue in order for the smooth running of community centers and money making businesses.

Wake Forest Alumni are amazing! The Vogle, Schneider, and Currence families provided amazing meals and hospitality.

Finally, you must see the damage and talk to the people to really understand what is going on. You will not believe it until you see it.

If you would like to help, this is what you can do:

Visit New Orleans!!!: This is a fun and easy way to help NO’s economy, as they are a big tourist-based city. There are a million things to do and it’s only a matter of time before you can find something you like.

Encourage your state representatives to visit NO themselves. Send them a quick postcard telling them that although much progress has been made, there is still many pressing issues that must be addressed; a personal visit is extremely eye-opening.

Donate your time and/or money to a reputable cause: Do a little research and find reputable organizations to give to. Volunteers are essential to reconstruction.

Watch Spike Lee’s “When the Levies Broke.” Educating yourself about this tragedy is the first step in understanding what needs to be done and figuring out what you can do.

Sunday, March 16, 2008 7:54 pm by Matthew Higgins

matt1.jpgIt is Saturday afternoon and we are getting ready to go out to dinner with a Wake alum who runs a non-profit dedicated to the reconstruction of New Orleans. We are finished working for the week and today has been a free, which has given me the opportunity to reflect upon the work that we have done and the things that we have seen since last Sunday. Although I had heard many stories about the destruction of New Orleans, this trip has been a very eye-opening experience. By living in New Orleans and listening to the people’s stories, I have gained a new appreciation for the physical destruction of the city and the emotional devastation of its people. Everyone who has lived through Katrina has a story to tell. It has been both heartbreaking and extremely moving to hear first-hand how the storm tore apart families, destroyed homes, and caused immeasurable psychological and emotional damage. But even though the trip has had its sad moments, it has also had inspirational ones. It’s very encouraging to see residents moving back into the neighborhoods that they grew up in and to see volunteers come in droves to help to rebuild to city and to provide support to the communities. Obviously, there is a lot more work to be done, but I am very grateful that our group has been given the opportunity to volunteer our time and to meet the brave people who have lived through the storm. My one hope is that the work that we have done for the people of New Orleans will be as enduring as the immeasurable impact that this trip has had on me and my life. Being exposed to the struggles that the people down here have faced and the destruction that the storm has caused has been an extremely powerful experience and is something that I will take with me back to Wake Forest and carry with me for the rest of my life.

Sunday, March 16, 2008 7:51 pm by Katharine Scott

katharines.jpgToday was the first day we finally went down to the Ninth Ward to see the damage there, since it’s received a lot of attention as having been damaged especially thoroughly. Truthfully the damage there was not too much worse than what we’d seen nearby in Saint Bernard’s Parish, which you are much less likely to have heard of. There were however some homes where the front was missing in parts. You could see into the home which was of course empty except for some garbage. But alongside many of such homes were some that had been completely renovated. Rebuilding in New Orleans seems slow and inconsistent, but there is evidence of it.

To a volunteer, an outsider, it feels like more should have been done since it is almost three years after the storm, but the fact remains that it is a slow process, especially for a city that is struggling economically. (Many business are boarded up). Today was our last day here and tomorrow is the big drive home. I feel as though I’ll be better able to reflect on the experience as a whole when I’m back at home (or at least Winston). We had a great last night in New Orleans, with a fantastic dinner provided by alumni Mrs. Currence. Interestingly while we were out driving today we saw yet another motorcade of several police cars and motorcycles. One of the cars contained several intimidating body guards, and in the other was President Bill Clinton, who spoke tonight at Emory. It was exciting and bizarre, and seemed to be another unexpected element of the trip. I’m exhausted even though we didn’t work today, so hope everyone had a great day and I’ll post more soon.

Final Thoughts

Sunday, March 16, 2008 1:02 am by Evan Raleigh

evan1.jpgThe hospitality that has been extended to our group while on this trip has been unlike anything that I’ve ever experienced. The volunteers who donate their time and energies to repairing this city are treated like royalty! I would like to personally thank the Vogel, Schneider, and Currence families for opening their homes to us and sharing their very touching stories about life post-Katrina and offering us their thoughts on the ongoing recovery efforts. The stories of these families and those of the other individuals we’ve encountered this week have made this trip memorable. I have been inspired this week to encourage classmates, friends, and family members to take ownership of New Orleans and vest their free time and energy in efforts that will help restore this unique city to its original glory. I would also implore our government to take a more active role in this capacity. With such a great amount of need remaining I realize that a full recovery for New Orleans and the surrounding areas will take several years, but I can see that the job of recovery has been made unduly difficult by our largely unresponsive federal government. How a government could be so absent from an area so completely devastated by natural disaster completely boggles my mind. Contemplating our departure tomorrow has also made me realize how great an impact can be made in such a short period of time. I can say with a great deal of certainty that there are individuals that our group has met this week that will live in our minds forever. My only regret is that I did not have more time to share with these folks. I can’t wait to see how much has improved when I return.

The Big Finish in the Big Easy

Saturday, March 15, 2008 11:26 pm by Teddy Aronson

teddy1.jpgIt seems the trip has come to a close. Five days of volunteering has spurred the best in all of us, and each story or memory brought back to campus will only benefit the rest of the community. What began as a shakily organized trip, with no fault put on our trip coordinators whatsoever, developed into a fulfilling and edifying experience. With our original itinerary thrown out the window, the Wake crew firmly turned their midweek slump in a new direction towards what we had originally intended on finding during our time in New Orleans.

After splitting the group into two on Monday, it seemed as if the group who spent their time with those at the St. Bernard Community Center took more out of their experience than did the weeders at the Botanical Gardens. Not to discredit the integrity or necessity of the work needed to be done in the City Park, but the group was looking to serve its time and effort better in purposes of greater impact.

With this in mind, the group returned as a whole to the Community Center on Tuesday to do, essentially, whatever we could. For the Botanical Garden workers, the first impression of the Center was undoubtedly strong. The bare interior covered in sections of spare clothing and food drew a powerful image both startling and hopeful. One can express this simple program through its volunteers. To name a few, there was Jason, the young, ambitious graduate of Swarthmore who decided to move to Louisiana to do what he can. Also, we had Steve Gonzalez, the master chef who had a story unrivaled in its impact on the trip and what it meant to us as volunteers. Steve had lost everything in the storm, including his wife of many years and every picture of her. When telling his story, he had difficulty reaching the end, but always managed to find some way through, for he knew his listeners would never forget what he was saying. Later in the day we had the opportunity to see and repair first hand an affected home. To say the least, there really wasn’t much a willing volunteer could do, the problems were too great.

Wednesday brought us another day at the Community Center, which grew from a productive day into an adventure through the city aquarium, a relaxing yet informative experience, which seemed to characterize each day. We quickly learned that no matter where we went or what we did with our time here, the most important thing we will take away from our trip will be the testimonies of those here. Those we’ve spoke with have showed us the New Orleans we’ve looked for down here, which we wouldn’t be able to find on our own. Not to mention, for our dinner the Vogel family, whose daughter is a current senior at Wake, cooked us a delicious dinner, which we greatly appreciated.

Thursday wrapped up our time at the St. Bernard Community Center, where the volunteers helped the local citizens gather a variety of clothing and food while preparing a delicious vegetable mix for all to indulge in. Later in the day, some members of our group decided to return to the home we visited on Tuesday to help with what they started, which consisted of a series of sheet rock mountings, while the rest of the group went to another volunteer center called Camp Hope, where different Habitat for Humanity volunteers were staying. We concluded our time with Steve the Chef there, taking away his all-work/all-play attitude and a new love for alligator sausage.

Friday brought what some will say was their favorite day. We decided to work through another organization called Beacon of Hope, which was another (what seems to be the trend down here) grassroots organization which goes door-to-door to affected homes to help with the rebuilding process. We got to the main office in Lakeview and immediately were sent off to an elderly woman’s home whose property hadn’t been cared for since before the storm. There was plenty for us to do. The yard was the main focus, with weeds (more weeds!) and leaves overtaking the property, as well as overgrown plant life and drift objects from the flood. By the end of the day, we had close to one-hundred trash bags lining the streets, an appropriate manifestation of the week’s accomplishments.

What does one take from a week filled with so much? As I mentioned before, I believe the most important aspect of this trip to be the people living in this area. I wish I could compile one major theme from what we heard throughout the week, but the perspectives and concentrations vary in their messages. From who’s to blame to spreading a positive outlook on the future of the city, so much can be taken from their words.

What I will take is what I’ve thought seeing and being around this area, and what others have confirmed: this place does not look like it was hit two and a half years ago. I could not tell you what the actual time frame does look like, but the overall importance of such an observation remains in the fact that New Orleans has not received the attention or aid it deserves. Two and a half years later, there is still so much to do. Too many homes are still wrecked and abandoned, while inhabitants struggle to get their lives back to the pre-Katrina days. Many expressed their beliefs that the hundreds of thousands of volunteers were the ones actually rebuilding the city, while any superior aid was utterly absent these days. The one point communicated to our group by everyone we met was the gratitude they wished to express to us for our being there. Our efforts, along with everyone else who has given or is currently giving their time to help rebuild this great city is what gives the citizens of New Orleans hope for the complete restoration of their city. Although we only had a week, I like to think that we did our best to make the most of our time here and that we’ve spread some degree of awareness about what is actually occurring, or not occurring down in this important part of our country.

The last day

Saturday, March 15, 2008 9:33 pm by Andrea Davis

andrea.jpgToday turned out to be a great day. We slept in for the first time this week which was wonderful. Then we had some time to explore our part of the city in the afternoon. We walked around Tulane University (which had sent students to Wake in ’05 after Katrina), and it was really beautiful. We also checked out the beautiful park across the street. It was so nice to just be able to sit in the park and reflect and think about everything that’s gone on this week. In the late afternoon we drove around the 9th ward to see what kind of shape it was in because we had heard so much about that area. It was unbelievable how much work there is left to be done. Many of the houses have already been restored to pre-Katrina quality, but the majority of them are boarded up and abandoned or just barely livable. You just expect that after this much time there wouldn’t be whole sections of the city still in such complete disarray, especially when some neighborhoods seem to be so well restored. We also saw it written on one house that a body had been found inside. Things like that really hit home for you and make you realize just how much was lost because of Katrina. We were also taken out to dinner tonight by Becky Currence, yet another Wake alumna who we’ve been able to connect with while in the city. She and her husband were so wonderful to us, taking all eighteen out for dinner. She really pressed the importance of letting Congress know about what’s going on in New Orleans and to tell everyone the New Orleans is open for business. The tourism industry has really taken a hard hit because people think New Orleans still isn’t up and running, but the tourism industry is so important for the economy New Orleans that it’s essential that people really start coming back. During dinner, a woman we didn’t even know just came up and gave us a heartfelt thank you for being here and helping to rebuild. It’s just been amazing to see how much we’re appreciated here, and I hope we can keep making a difference after we get home.


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