Originally, when I applied for this course, I had no idea what I was getting into. I simply thought it would be a great opportunity to travel somewhere new, hopefully use some of the theoretical concepts we have learnt in class in a practical setting, and be given the opportunity to help people that are still recovering after five plus years of disaster. I never thought that my life would be changed forever. I arrived home from New Orleans on my 25th birthday, sitting on the runway at Person, Olivia and Pascal wished me a happy birthday as we taxied into our gate. It was the perfect end to a great trip that showed me just how amazing the people I went with are (like the awesome birthday cards I received the day before). Going on a trip with 21 strangers could be a difficult time, especially when you factor in hard work, sleep depravation (which was our own fault…mostly), new surroundings, a new climate, a new culture and different personalities. However, by the end of the trip I had made 21 new friends and became a new person.
My first week was spent at the St Bernard Project. I was teamed up with Olka and Emma…Team Hardibacker…*slow thrust*. Our job was to finish the floors and install a laminate shower kit for this amazing family who, since Katrina, had such a difficult time returning home. Living between New Orleans and Florida to survive and also suffering the ill effects of the asbestos filled FEMA trailer, the family just wanted to come home, and we wanted to help. We all did. I have never seen 10 strangers come together like we did to complete a common goal. We encouraged each other, learned from each other, laughed with each other and definitely sweated with each other. The house was so close to being finished that we wanted to be the group to welcome home the family. Realistically, that wasn’t going to happen, there was still going to be a lot to do after we left, but we all wanted to finish the goals that had been made for us by Willem, our leader, and we might of finished them had we not gone to Stephensville to do some sandbagging. But it was worth it.
Stephensville, could be one of those, “once in a life time”, experiences, but I think realistically it was training for a lot of us. We got the opportunity to help a small Bayou community prepare for the possibility of severe flooding working alongside a chain gang from a local prison and a group of Christian missionaries. We were a group of odd balls, at least on the surface, but underneath we all wanted the same thing, to save this community. We all worked tirelessly to fill, tie and load sand bags into the trucks of people and even using our own van to transport sand bags to community members who needed them and in the case of a few we even unloaded and set-up a wall of sandbags at a couple houses (most notably Ms Junes). The one thing, being in the Deep South, that I was expecting a lot of, was racism, but up until the sandbagging I hadn’t really seen any. Even at the sandbagging, it was just a few hints at it from a few of the black inmates in regards to what a few white community members had said/done that made it somewhat apparent. It wasn’t until the next day that we would really see the racism and hate of the South.
For our first full weekend in New Orleans, 11 of us, led by Tanya, headed to the Civil Rights memorial in Montgomery, Alabama for a lesson on civil rights. Up until this trip I never understood, truly, what was(is) going on in the Deep South of the United States, and for me it was overwhelming. Walking into the memorial, we all had to get searched and have our bags x-rayed, as I was waiting in line for my turn, I noticed a charred and damaged clock on the wall behind me. Under the clock it read “Why the security?” and outlined how, since 1983, the memorial has been bombed (or attacked) more than two dozen times by the KKK and other white supremacists. This was unfathomable to me (and still is), how could anyone hate that much? When we walked into the memorial we were quickly sent into a theatre to watch a film on the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and how men and women, black and white, stood together to peacefully stand up for what is right. Learning about the segregation of the South, it quickly dawned on me, and the rest of us, that in a time not that long ago (40+ years) we would not be allowed to be friends with each other or study together or sit beside each other like we were doing.
After the film we went back out to the room we started in; it was a round room, with a window that looked out to the circular monument outside, there were a number of interactive computer stations to show us geographically where certain key locations around Montgomery were, and the walls were covered in a mural highlighting key figures and newspaper articles from the times. Standing in this room, with 12 like minded individuals looking at this memorial, I started to cry. I will never be able to understand how anyone could hate as much as the white people in the South did, and how strong and heroic the black and white people who stood up for civil rights were.
This put into context some of the racist planning and decision making ideas that all levels of Government in New Orleans (municipal, state and federal) have put into place. It might not be as blatant as blowing up a memorial (but what about a levee?) but with tons of homes still not rebuilt, thousands of units of social housing left rotten, infrastructure (deplorable roads and destroyed sidewalks) in tatters it is clear that even following Katrina, the disaster is not yet over. Environmental injustice is rampant in New Orleans, as Tanya Harris pointed out, and not much is being done by the Government to help the black people of New Orleans, so they are left to help themselves.
I cried a few times on this trip (and a few times since I’ve gotten back), and aside from when I watch the odd Disney-Pixar movie, that doesn’t happen very often. I don’t like to show people when I’m upset, but this trip showed me that its alright to let it happen. When we first started doing check-ins, I wasn’t fully convinced they were necessary, in Alabama, it became obvious that they were and we went as far as to request one.
The second week opened my eyes even wider, instead of going back to St Bernard Project and because I told Tanya to “put me wherever” I was shown a wide arrangement of new experiences. Day one and five was spent at Magnolia house, a school for adults with special needs. Going there, I had no idea what the school was for, and originally thought it was simply a school we would be helping rebuild. Magnolia School, for the most part seemed intact, and we were asked to help with some gardening around the front entrance of the school. For me, this work was hard, but it was just digging, NBD (no big deal, or as Briar would say no big dog) that was until we went in for lunch. That is when I understood the reason we were there. We ate lunch with about 200 other people, and aside from the few workers, everyone had special needs. This was new for me; I haven’t spent a lot of time with people with special needs and at first I was uncomfortable. But the warmth of the students and the staff quickly made me feel at home. Following lunch we were given free time to hang out with the students and Remo, Shakera and I decided to wash dishes. As we washed dishes, with a number of the students (who were on work detail) this feeling came over me, like I had been wasting my time in Toronto. I wanted to help people, I loved helping people, all people and this opportunity showed me that. I would be 25 when I came home from New Orleans, I wasn’t going to sit around and waste hours on the TV any more, I was going to come home and help.
I spent one day at the Green Project, taking nails out of reclaimed lumber and mixing paint (Timmies Double Double paint to be exact) and talking with Sarah about the homelessness class she and Pascal were teaching when we got back, and I decided then that was something I wanted to do. I was ready to keep learning and learning how to help back home as well as abroad. The two final days I spent at the Food co-op which opened my eyes to the importance of food security for neighbourhoods like the Lower Ninth, who had no grocery stores in the whole area. This was something I had never really thought of before, and coming from Canada, I think I took for granted. I have three large grocery stores and three local grocery stores in walking distance from me. If I could say one thing about this trip, is that it opened my eyes.
I regret not doing something like this sooner. I arrived back in Toronto on my 25th birthday, a milestone to some, and a milestone to me because it marks the year I make change. I will no longer waste my time, idling through life, letting things go on in the world around me while doing nothing about it. I no longer look at people and places the same and I can’t shut up about New Orleans, and I don’t want to. I read NOLA news and Youtube New Orleans music, I just can’t get enough. It is such a beautiful city with beautiful people and rich and diverse culture; I would go back any day and plan on it very soon. I took from this trip a desire to help, a desire to look deeper into the root causes of problems and issues and a desire to learn. I finally found what I was looking for through 6(ish) years of schooling at the University level, a way of learning that I blossom in, and lessons that aren’t theoretical in place or idea but something that was real; I touched it, I saw it, I helped to change it, I was physically there and did something about it. I will never go back to the way I was before, I’m new, I’m fresh and I’m ready to go.