Last Thursday, May 3rd I celebrated my 30th Birthday in New Orleans. Despite the fact that I was unable to share this day with my husband, family and friends from Toronto, I had the best birthday of my life. Not only was the day really memorable and special but I feel that it really captured and encompassed my impression of my New Orleans experience. I awoke to my new NOLA friends wishing me “Happy Birthday” and Pascal, one of our group’s facilitators, clipped a five dollar bill to my shirt as he wished me a happy birthday. I thought to myself, “Oh, that’s interesting and cool”. Little did I know how this gesture would impact my birthday experience. Throughout the morning, my classmates started to add money to my clip and when I got to the St. Bernard Project work site our project, our project manager and some new volunteers all looked at me and wished me “Happy Birthday”. I was a little taken aback and asked them how they knew it was my birthday. They explained to me that it was a NOLA tradition to have people pin money on you for your birthday. From then on, wherever we went, complete strangers were walking up to me, with well wishes and giving me money. To me, this NOLA tradition is a perfect reflection of the true sense of community that exists in New Orleans. This sense of community very quickly extended to our class group. My classmates and new friends threw me an incredible surprise party, complete with a decorated birthday van, cupcake (my favorite dessert), a beautiful birthday card and a birthday card. I was really touched that a group of people I had only known for just a few days would go out of their way to celebrate my birthday and make the day so special. What really touched me the most was how excited everyone was to throw me a party.
Again, this gesture really reflects the way in which people in New Orleans celebrate and support each other during special occasions in their lives. Birthdays, weddings and even funerals are celebrated with family and friends within the context of the community around them. After Hurricane Katrina, people in the community came together to support each other and to rebuild when they were essentially abandoned by their government. It was and continues to be the volunteers that come from all over the US and Canada that are slowly but steadily rebuilding this community, and in that effort become a part of the NOLA community. This sense of community is something that Toronto is really missing and I am a little worried about returning to the city because of it. Even within a few days it was interesting to see how our class really came together to support and celebrate each other. During the group check-in that evening people opened up in a way I did not expect. There was laughter and there were many tears and suddenly there was a mutual bond that I think no one saw coming. We have shared some of our selves with each other, with New Orleans and this trip will be a part of our lives forever. I am sure that this won’t be the last time I come down. Thank you to all to my classmates and instructors for making this an incredible experience and for making my birthday one I will never forget.