As I stood in line for my Customs interview, I predictably began to sweat. I mean, I’m not a rabid ex-con or anything, but standing in front of those officers just makes me want to confess to things I had nothing to do with (Note to self: NEVER take a career in the Secret Service). The attendant ushered me forward and, much to my surprise, the customs officer turned out to be the man who had witnessed my mother’s hysterics while dropping me off an hour earlier. “This isn’t a coincidence, you know. Your mother made sure I watched over you until you crossed our border”, he snickered. I began to relax as he scanned my documents. He asked me why I was going to New Orleans and, as rehearsed, I stated it was a part of my course at Ryerson University, that I would be meeting twenty others down there, later this afternoon. I handed him the letter and, as he scanned it, looked up at me and said quietly “You’re going to New Orleans for a lot more than just some school work.” I began to grow nervous but his next comments surprised me. “It’s taken this country years to do there what it would have taken a day for them to do anywhere else. People like you and your classmates just warm my heart. Volunteers work their fingers to the bone for people they don’t know. My family and friends there appreciate it, I assure you. God Bless you, your mama must be proud.” He then handed me back my documents, we exchanged well wishes, and I went on my way.

I don’t the think the enormity of his statements hit me until later in this trip. Up until we departed from Toronto, my preparation for this trip had been purely academic. I hadn’t had the chance to think about what others think about what we’re doing here. Notably, I mean that in the least self-aggrandizing way. I simply mean that the work that we’re doing, the work that thousands of volunteers before us have done, has not and will not go unnoticed. People with no connection to the victims of Katrina have reached out their hands and hearts to make even the most marginal of differences. Acknowledgment isn’t necessary, purely because that drive to help comes from within. But it was interesting to hear it from someone whom is on the outside – even just a customs officer – who doesn’t lie within the assigned “confines” of victimhood or relief.

Working on the sites that we have, learning what we have, meeting the people that I’ve met, and sharing parts of myself to the classmates with whom I’ve grown so close to has been one of the most liberating experiences I’ve ever had. I’m leaving a little piece of my heart in New Orleans, and am already counting down the days until I return.

– Maria