[Community] Service With a Smile
Even the faintest familiar smell or any mention of the Gulf Coast sends my mind reeling back to that week in New Orleans. I traveled with my church youth group to see what twenty pairs of teenaged hands could do to help. We had naively assumed that a decent amount of progress had been made after 18 months. We were horrified to discover hundreds of wrecked houses still filled with the moldy decay of food, clothing, and family treasures that had been buried under seven feet of water for months.
Our first workday, we found ourselves in the abandoned wasteland of the Lower Ninth Ward, miles away from the hustle and bustle of the pristine French Quarter we so readily associated with New Orleans. The gutting crew put us to work immediately, knocking down rotten walls and throwing the life of a seventy-year-old woman to the curb. After countless wheelbarrow trips to and from the house, old newspapers, school notebooks, and unrecognizable family mementos had been tossed into a heap on the sidewalk.
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The supervisors told us what the Xs meant, spray-painted on the sides of the houses. Each quadrant signified the rescue group, the date the house was checked, and how many people were found dead inside. Most of the latter numbers were zero, thankfully, but the occasional one or two sent chills down our spines. We finished the rest of the work week in silence, speaking to each other only to request help with a heavy wheelbarrow or to shout a warning as the ceiling – and our spirits with it – came crashing to the floor.
We did have the opportunity to visit the French Quarter for a taste of real New Orleans cuisine, and also experienced some of the Mardi Gras festivities. A small group of us ended up on Bourbon Street, and the contrast of the two halves of the city was striking. People here partied with reckless abandon, while those on the other side lived in run-down FEMA trailers next to what was left of their homes.
On our last day, we took a lunch break and visited a neighborhood grocery store. A woman came up to us and, in typical southern fashion, started telling us her story: “Two cars, a home, and an entire material life were lost. But,” she said, “I still have my seven children and people like you to help us.”
Our group returned to chilly Boston the next day with lifted spirits and warm hearts. We had done some pretty nasty work down there, but knowing we had changed lives made it all worthwhile. Nothing can compare to the experiences of that trip to New Orleans, where a ray of hope still shines on the faces of the people, waiting for people like us to come and help.