Volunteering with the Red Cross Tuesday, Jun 5 2012 

I’ve been volunteering since I was a kid. I think the first time was with my dad when he did his shifts at the Smith Township library; later I did my own shifts. In elementary school I began organizing fundraisers and events to help feed children in Africa. From high school on volunteering was an important part of what I did in my life. I dedicate a significant amount of time  to volunteering every week; even here in the US (as I write this I have just finished a call-in to a board meeting with the Professional Writers Association of Canada where, as I finish my 7th year on the board this week, I serve as Past-President).

I volunteer with the Disaster Services arm of the American Red Cross.

I’m really enjoying my work with the American Red Cross. I’ve written before about my two experiences on bigger Disaster Relief Operations – in Vermont with Hurricane Irene last August/September and in Carencro (Lafayette), Louisiana this past march with the SWLA Flood. Most recently, I trained as an instructor in the disasters stream and have been doing some trainings prepping volunteers to be shelter volunteers if needed in the hurricane season.

Red Cross cot assembly

The shelter training participants at the New Roads library in Point Coupee around a Red Cross cot they learned to assemble (My training partner, Jonathan Hammett, Regional Partnership Manager for Southern Louisiana is in the red shirt).

Even though my Master’s degree I received in 2009 and the PhD I am undertaking now are technically in Environmental Studies, there was/is a huge focus on disasters in both of them. The courses I took at York University – through the Faculty of Environmental Studies and the Disaster and Emergency Management program have been incredibly helpful and useful as I learn more about the inner workings of a Disaster Relief Operation. I sat in on a planning meeting last week; the number of volunteers that will be required if a large hurricane hits is enormous. On top of that, you have to anticipate that some trained volunteers won’t be able to respond given their own life circumstances, so training must include 3x the number of people  you actually anticipate needing.

The most common disaster in the United States is the single home house fire (image source: American Red Cross).

Even outside of “wartime” ie when there isn’t a formal, large-scale disaster there is lots of work to be done. A standard disaster cycle is Preparedness, Mitigation, Response and Recovery. But once you have recovered, the system is right back into preparing and mitigating. What worked, what didn’t work, how many people need to be trained this year, what shelters will be needed, where will they be etc etc etc.

My other main function with the Red Cross right now is helping the South Louisiana Regional Partnerships Manager, Jonathan Hammett, with some of the preparedness work. Not only are we training volunteers, but we are in a constant recruitment mode to try to find more. We are also connecting with groups and organizations, especially churches, to secure spaces for a shelter. This involves meeting with an interested church, assessing their interest and capacity, then if they are supportive having a full evaluation of their space completed to ensure that it is safe and suitable. Finally, a partnerships agreement is signed. During an actual disaster, I’ll be a Community Partner Services Lead for the South-East Lousiana chapter which will include connecting with our partner groups and helping to mobilize them (Jonathan has the same role but will be based out of the Baton Rouge chapter). The Madisonville office where disaster operations will be based for the SELA reponse is less than a 15 minute drive from my place (though there are rooms for sleeping if required).

A little blurry but this is *why* I volunteer. The question asks “How did the Red Cross help you” and under “other” the client wrote “Smiles”. In a time of crisis, knowing that someone was there with a smile and support is the most important gift we can give our neighbours.

Will you consider being

“Ready When the Time Comes”

and become a Red Cross volunteer?

Ask me for details!!


Louisiana American Red Cross State-Wide Training Days Monday, Jun 4 2012 

Image Red Cross Statewide Training Days

Red Cross Statewide Training Days

If you’ve ever thought about volunteering in a shelter during a hurricane evacuation, now is the time to get trained. Saturday June 9th and Saturday July 14th are state-wide training days in Louisiana.

In the New Orleans area there will be training at the Canal Street office and the Madisonville offfice. If you’re outside the Metro area there is also training in Baton Rouge, Lake Charles, Shreveport, Monroe, Alexandria and Lafayette (Scott) on both days. There will also be training on June 9th only in Thibodaux and in Luling on July 14th only.

Personally, on July 7th I should be doing a training at the New Orleans Healing Center’s Street University and on July 14th, I’ll be doing a training in New Roads, Point Coupee.

The Disaster Services Overview  and Shelter Operations/Simulation combined course is just one day of training and then you’re “Ready When the Time Comes” to serve in a shelter in case of a hurricane.

The easiest way to register is to go to: http://www.batonrouge.redcross.org/hurricane-training

Click the date and the chapter that works best for you. This will take you to the registration system. Click on New User at the top right of page and fill out the very short form. Last, click Place Order. (There is no charge for disaster courses.)

Although details will confirm only the first class of the day, you will be signed up for the sequence of courses throughout the day. The training runs 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Hurricane Season starts today! Friday, Jun 1 2012 

From today (June 1st) until November 30th is Hurricane Season! Are you ready?

Image of Gulf hurricane

A look at Hurricane Ivan in the Gulf of Mexico.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts a near-normal year for hurricanes with nine to 15 storms in the Atlantic Ocean. Of these storms, four to 8 could strengthen to a hurricane with winds of 74 mph or higher, with as many as three becoming major hurricanes with winds of 111 mph or higher.

According to the American Red Cross, “Getting prepared ahead of time is the best way to be ready for any emergency of weather disaster.”

Their three step plan is “Get a Kit, Make a Plan, Be Prepared”.

Image three step plan for preparedness from Red Cross

Be Red Cross Ready in case of a disaster

  • Build an emergency kit with a gallon of water per person, per day, non-perishable food, a flashlight, battery-powered radio, first aid kit, medications, supplies for an infant if applicable, a multi-purpose tool, personal hygiene items, copies of important papers, cell phone chargers, extra cash, blankets, maps of the area and emergency contact information.
  • Talk with household members and create an evacuation plan. Planning and practicing evacuation plan minimizes confusion and fear during the event.
  • Be informed. Learn about the community’s hurricane response plan. Plan routes to local shelters, register family members with special medical needs as required and make plans for pets to be cared for.
  • Because standard homeowners insurance doesn’t cover flooding, it’s important to have protection from the floods associated with hurricanes, tropical storms, heavy rains and other conditions that impact the U.S. For more information on flood insurance, please visit the National Flood Insurance Program website at www.FloodSmart.gov.

For my students; a reflection letter of my own. Sunday, May 27 2012 

This is primarily for the 2012 CINT 912 students who (mostly) flew home two weeks ago today. But it is also for all our subscribers and our readers, and all of the students from the other five classes of Community Development – International Perspectives: New Orleans (or whatever the official name of this course is, I never remember!!)  As background to the non-students, starting no earlier than 7-10 days after the trip the students are asked to write a reflection about their experience or give a presentation to a group about what happened here.

Dear students:

Today is two weeks since y’all flew back to Canada or headed on to further adventures. I get asked a lot “are your students gone?” and while I answer “yes“, that’s not entirely accurate. None of y’all are ever really gone; from my life, from my heart, or from New Orleans. A piece of you remains inside me, and your sweat, tears (and in some cases blood) have been left on the soil of this city. Just as you will never forget New Orleans, it will never forget you either.

Reading your reflections is bittersweet. I feel your passion and your love for this city, but I also hear your struggles. The challenge of explaining your experience to someone who wasn’t there is one that has challenged me, and students of this course, since the very beginning. In May 2009, a week after returning I tried to sum this up. I share this with you to give you encouragement that indeed this is very common. No one will ever fully understand your experience without having been here, but eventually you will find the words, pictures or songs to show them little glimpses.

In 2009 I wrote “I don’t quite know how to answer the question “How was New Orleans?” Visiting New Orleans aka NOLA is really unlike visiting most other places and therefore the answer is unfamiliar. How do you describe a city where everyone has experienced loss? In St. Bernard Parish where we spent our first week every single home, indeed every single building except 4, was damaged by the flood. SBP is the only community to ever have been 100% affected by a natural disaster (though we know that natural is a bit of an oxymoron really).” The rest of the post can be read here: https://toronto2nola.wordpress.com/2009/05/20/how-was-new-orleans/

I ended that blog with these words: “So I don’t know how New Orleans was. If you ask me, I’ll say it was good, or fine, or joke about my kids, or point out my sunburn and blisters. But I can’t answer you because I just don’t know.” 

After 4 years of teaching this class, after two years of spending as much time here as possible, I still don’t know how to explain this class or this place to people who haven’t been through it. You’ve only been gone for two weeks; don’t expect it to come easily.

New Orleans is a city that gets under your skin from the time you step off the plane.  I remember meeting someone at the American Sociological Association conference in Atlanta a couple of years ago who was doing her Master’s research on Katrina and New Orleans and yet SHE HAD NEVER BEEN HERE!!!  It is impossible to understand this place academically through papers, books, websites, photos or films. Nothing prepares you for the real experience.

Even after 4 trips down before I moved –over 5 weeks of experience– I knew nothing. Even after living here two years what I can explain about this place is small –academic and technical information about slavery, history, Katrina, levees, swamps, environmental justice and disasters out the wazoo– but a way to explain the spirit and life blood of New Orleans I have yet to find. Showing it is easy: from the people who take a break from rebuilding homes nearly years later to wave while I give a visitor a tour to the guy on the bus last year some students met who teared up when they said they were volunteers from Canada; he had been rescued in St. Bernard by that first group of Canadians from BC who arrived 4 days after the storm before any federal assistance from the American government. The stories by Pastor Randy, Tanya Harris, the homeowners, the staff at the Food Coop or The Green Project, and all our other partners gives us glimpses.

On change over day in 2010, when 20 students flew home and 19 more arrived, I tried to summarize some of my thoughts and quantify what was so hard to explain. I said, “Sometimes it is hard to remember that the New Orleans area was completely under water a few years ago. But as I write this it is raining. It’s a gentle patter now but 30 minutes ago it was a deluge. I was out driving in St Bernard Parish and the roads flooded instantly. Not just a little but several inches – a foot in some places – within five minutes. And I remembered. I don’t always remember that every house in my new community – Arabi Louisiana, part of St. Bernard Parish – had flooding during Katrina. Every single house was declared uninhabitable. I rent an apartment that was mostly above the floodline; the part I am living in was at least. My laundry and storage rooms were flooded. The bachelor apartment beneath me was flooded. The water went up my stairs. The floors creak, a lot. I am sure they weren’t fully, or at least properly, repaired after Katrina. When I step on the floors I remember.” More at: https://toronto2nola.wordpress.com/2010/05/15/musings-on-memory-in-new-orleans/

But the only way to really understand is to be present in the city and to absorb all it has to offer. And all of you were sooooo present in your experience in a way that is likely rare for more visitors (or even for any of us when we travel elsewhere). It is this act of being present, of being open and engaged that likely has created the most impact upon you. In your reflections I hear your uncertainty in trying to explain –or even in trying to figure out– how the experience changed you. Last year, Shannon K., a colleague of yours in the NOLA All-Stars post-CINT 912 experience, summed this up so well in her Love Letter to New Orleans. She wrote, “I miss the way everyday you taught me something new about myself, and about life in general. You made me realize, no matter what, it’s worth it for me to push to be the best person I can be. It’s worth it to be constantly be challenging things. You made me realize who I want to push to be, and where I want to push to go.” (Read more at https://toronto2nola.wordpress.com/2011/06/30/a-love-letter/)

Yet I also read about your fears, your guilt, your sense of privilege that your life exists as it does while others struggle, your uncertainty about what to do, your desires to return and so many other emotions. The fact that this trip has awakened something in so many of you is breathtaking. That it is motivating you to do “better”, to be “better” is both encouraging and a bit unsettling.

YOU ARE ALL AMAZING PEOPLE. AS YOU ARE NOW. NO MATTER WHAT ELSE YOU DO. Sorry for the shouting, but it needs to be said, and I need you to hear it loud and clear. You gave of yourselves every day that you were here; indeed for several months leading up to this trip you were going above and beyond the normal student experience.

While you came as a group, worked and lived as a group, and for many of you, left as a group on the same flight, your experiences were still in many ways individualistic. Who you were before contributed to what you take from this trip.  Don’t feel guilty for your life before New Orleans or for the parts of your life that remain the same after New Orleans. One of my favourite poets, Maya Angelou said these words to Oprah, many many years ago: “You did then what you knew how to do, And when you knew better, You did better.” This really speaks to me about the self-criticism we all often engage in. We are only as good as our tools, knowledge and abilities. As those change/improve, so do we. You have new skills in your life from your trip that you can now add to your toolbox (the metaphorical kind). You will be different even if the activities you engage are the same ones from before the trip.

Whether you come back to New Orleans, visit a reserve in Northern Ontario, travel to a country in the Global South, or do work around your city/neighbourhood/home/work/school/faith community or anywhere else you will be able to create change if it is needed to the best of your ability at that given moment. Social justice is not an easy path and there are no quick fixes. At times, our lives and circumstances don’t permit us the opportunities to do what we want, so doing our best means doing what we can right then. Sometimes, we can give our all very intensely as you did for the two weeks you were here. Sometimes, all we can do is hold a thought in our hearts. Either way; it’s enough.

A few thoughts to highlight this, and to share with you some of the values/words that I try to live my life by:

1)Be the change you wish to see in the world” – Gandhi.

2) “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

3) “Se hace camino al andar” –  Antonio Machado which translates to “You make the way as you go” or “You make the road/path by walking” (common translations).

4) “In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

5) And last not but least, from The Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss – “You have brains in your head.  You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know.  And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go.

So my dear students, know that just as your memories hold tight to the spirit of the people and their hearts hold tight to you, no matter where you are, here or there, now or then…




Elena’s NOLA blog Thursday, May 24 2012 

Submitted by: Elena Cifuentes

Since in New Orleans, I have seen and done so much in such a short period of time. From a myriad of volunteer projects to sight-seeing, my days have been filled with activities and learning. This work week in particular has been great thus far. The group of girls from class coupled with the other volunteers from the St. Bernard project made for a positive and fun work environment. It was apparent through group conversations over lunch breaks how excited, humbled, and grateful everyone was to be a part of such a meaningful experience that contributed to the rebuilding and rehabilitation of various New Orleans neighbourhoods. Our St. Bernard group’s house supervisor Andrew and his two assistants, Alex and Sarah, all brought with them various skills and talents that would come in handy to the rebuilding and execution of the opportunity house that we were assigned to work on. I could see in their demeanor the level of commitment each of them had towards the rebuilding of this house and dedication to their work which only heightened my group’s motivation to complete our tasks as effectively and to the best of our abilities as possible.

One of my jobs for the week included grouting a shower with Melanie, one of my group’s members and fellow class mate. At first what seemed like a bit of a tedious job, we were up for the challenge. After my hours of sweat and elbow grease, we got the shower sparkling and looking good as new. We were so proud of this labour of love that we worked on for a couple days and smiled realizing that soon someone was going to be standing in the shower we just finished working on. A sense of accomplishment and positivity filled the spaces of the house. This week I learned a great deal about myself and others, especially in regards to my abilities and what I am able and capable of accomplishing on my own. I’ve never really worked with power tools prior to this trip in my life but it’s been a fun experience learning how to work and use them. Gives me hope for what else I am able to do in the future when it comes to renovations since one day I too will be a home owner and can appreciate the amount of work and energy it takes to build a house.

I have to say that I have never enjoyed and laughed so much while at work while still being able to complete tasks. I could see the amount of love and pride that the St. Bernard volunteers had for this house and as the work week went on, those same feelings I believe were instilled in each of us knowing that our efforts have in some way contributed to the completion of this house. I can say whole heartedly that being a part of this class has been eye opening and a learning experience in so many ways. I am grateful to have made connections with such a great group of intelligent, kind, and generous individuals who I know will all make significant contributions to the world we live in and the communities within it. I can say that although I was thousands of miles away from home I felt a sense of here in New Orleans. I think feeling that way can be attributed to the caring nature of my fellow peers and facilitators but also due to the kindness of the people of New Orleans.

Something that was very apparent since the very beginning of this New Orleans experience was the southern hospitality which has carried all the way through these two weeks and is something very distinct and special I think to the people of New Orleans. No matter how small or big an interaction, everyone in the city makes an effort to acknowledge others even if it’s just a simple hello or wave. These moments are what bind us as humans and reminded me of the importance of connection which is something I have been confronted with on this trip on more than one occasion.

Another moment of this week that meant a lot to me was my outing to Preservation Hall with three of the girls on this trip that I have fostered a great relationship with while on this journey and trip, ya’ll know who you are. When chatting with friends and family about my trip, this was one place that kept popping up in conversations. I knew I had to attend a performance no ifs, ands or buts about it, I was determined to experience New Orleans jazz at its best. Ever since I was a little girl, music has played such an instrumental and important role in my life, so getting to attend a performance such as the one at Preservation hall I knew was going to be something special. Upon entering the venue which from the outside is small and rustic looking, a sense of intimacy was felt in the room whereby the band was situated right in front of the audience as if these were a part of it themselves. There was a particular energy and aura that I felt during the performance, I was so moved by the music and overcome with emotion that I started to tear up. I was in such awe of the talent that I was witnessing and the level of skill each of the band members conveyed during their set. The variety of content they played during their set made for a range of emotions to be felt which I thought really reflected and paralleled what I’ve been experiencing so far on this trip. These moments on this journey that really stick out for me and that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. They’re ones that taught me a lot about myself but also showed me that despite everything the people of New Orleans have endured and experience as a result of Hurricane Katrina, their love, pride, and admiration for their city still lives on.

Living New Orleans Wednesday, May 23 2012 

Living New Orleans

Coming to New Orleans, I did not know what to expect once I got here.  I knew that this would be an amazing experience and that I would learn so much but I did not know how deeply I would come to love this city.  It is so different from any place I have ever visited before.  New Orleans is very relaxed, at times it feels lawless, but what really struck a cord with me was the kindness of the people.  Never in my life have I met people who are so friendly and easily ready to engage with a complete stranger on such a level before!  When people here ask you how your day was, they stop and wait for a response and do not keep walking by as a stranger may in Toronto.  Although every social sphere has its hierarchies, it is evident that New Orleans has a real sense of community.  Last week I had the opportunity to work with The Green Project, an organization that recycles used home building materials and sells them at an affordable price or disposes of the materials that cannot be used in the greenest way possible.  I spent the day deconstructing screens in order for the aluminum to be recycled.  This organization is extremely beneficial to those who are, nearly seven years later, still trying to rebuild bit by bit.  As my group member and I disassembled screens, a local gentleman approached us and asked if we had a specific size of screen for his rebuild.  We chatted for sometime and then the pair of us proceeded to head inside and retrieve the screens that he needed.  Upon our return, we came to find him not waiting near our work site, but right where we were standing, cracking screens and placing the aluminum parts in bins to be recycled.  We could not believe our eyes! Here was a man, who was still trying to obtain materials in order to have adequate housing, taking time out of his day to help us with our work.  When I told the gentleman that he did not have to help us out, he responded, “You only live once, you better live right”.

This is a moment that will stick with me forever and I feel completely defined my trip and the reason why I decided to apply to the course.  I so believe in the assistance of others and now know that this is something that I will likely make a career out of once I am finished my schooling.  It is not just about helping someone less fortunate then oneself, as I encountered many people that I worked with these weeks with various different socioeconomic standings.  It is about engaging with individuals in order to create a more positive and less self-centered community that will bring everyone on to higher ground.  I, by no means feel that I am coming here to help those who are less than I am because they live differently than I do.  I am here to fill a need and to let them direct me to where my efforts are best placed.  If that means scrubbing bricks, deconstructing screens or even digging a moat (all of which I participated this in over the last two weeks), I do not mind. I now know that no matter how little or how large the task is that it allows individuals to once again be able to direct a path of autonomy for themselves, something that no matter their social standing was taken away from so many nearly seven years before.

So on that note, New Orleans; what you have given to me is so much more than a trip, so much more than a course.  This city has given me the belief in myself that the path I have tried to make for myself at home, the path that has taken me here, is the path I’m meant to be on.  New Orleans, thank you for being so kind to a stranger, for sharing your triumphs and sorrows with me and for taking me in no questions asked.  You have made me feel so whole in a time in my life where I have felt so scattered.  I love you New Orleans and I will return. I am only going to live once, and I’ll be damned if I don’t choose to live right.

-Natalie Morning

Thawany’s Trip Post Tuesday, May 22 2012 

These past two weeks have been pretty eventful and I have learned a lot about myself and what I am capable of doing. It was amazing interacting with the locals and learning about their experience with Hurricane Katrina. I never laughed and cried so much on a trip and I am grateful for going. Last week my group worked on a house that belonged to an older man. We had to install gutters because he wasn’t able to do the work himself. As I was helping install his gutters I realized that his roof was falling apart and would need to be repaired/replaced. I brought this to the attention of the one of the volunteers that was suprising us. He stated that its at least 8-10 grand to replace a roof, and that the owner of the house may not have the money to afford it. It gave me a great sense of despair because the owner of the house was really nice. He came out and afforded us water, and allowed us to use his washroom. Inside of his house was beautifully renovated and you could tell that he took great pride in his house. Seeing his kindness and motivation to rebuild his house slowly but surely, made me realize that there is hope. I looked around me at all the houses that were near the homeowner’s and realized that people everywhere were rebuilding. It was a wonderful to see, hear and feel life returning back into the community. Driving around New Orleans you tend to see a lot of empty lots and boarded up houses. It can make you depressed to look at all of that. However there is rebuilding and people are coming back into the city.

In Memory of Vanessa Tuesday, May 22 2012 

May 2nd 2012

Blog Entry

In memory of Vanessa

Today, my group went down to the Food Co-op and we were full of excitement because we were told about everyone’s amazing experience the day before. Walking into the food co-op, it gave me a sense of community and health. Going though the aisle, I looked at all the organic foods, the natural ingredients, gluten free and healthy alternatives. It made me more conscious of my food habits and the additives, preservatives and unnatural ingredients i put into my body. Seeing people come and being able to purchase foods that allow them to be healthy and access resources to fit their food needs is an empowering alternative for them. The power of choice and affordability for these people is something to co-op offers to their shoppers. I will defintely become more health conscious and participate in food co ops when I get home.

During our time  in the food co-op, we recieved very sad news about the passing of one of the food co-op’s staff member, Vanessa. Vanessa touched my group dearly because we were on site when she fell ill. Our professor Pascal contributed to her revival process, however she did not make it. It was indeed a very traumatizing situation for our group. Not expecting such a huge loss on our work day at the the co-op, we felt naturally inclined to support one another. After a group check in, we decided to stay at the food co-op after it closed to help out with work that needed to be done. In a situation were we felt helpless, we made an effort to assist the co-op and the co-op community in any way possible as a team. The importance of team support and cohesiveness was very important today. The food co-op team supported one another after the loss of Vanessa. They were able to stay calm and grieve as a team. Our group became a backbone for each other where we shared our feelings, emotions, tears and smiles. I personally do not know how I would have coped without my team and debriefing with my community was healing for me.

Our love and support is with the co-op food team and those who are morning the loss of Vanessa.

We will always remember Vanessa and her contributions to a food co-op that supports the people of New Orleans.

Alyia Chan

Alyia’s back from NOLA Tuesday, May 22 2012 

I really didn’t think that it would take me this long to digest my trip to New Orleans. I found it difficult to even tell people about it because I did not know where to start. This learning experience that ran beyond the doors of the classroom, exams and tests put my life and knowledge into perspective in a way that I never thought was imaginable. The culture that New Orleans holds is incredible. Coming from Toronto, I would say our culture is a mix of different practices from other geographical places such as celebrating festivals from other countries, going down the streets and hearing everything from Bollywood to Arabic to Reggae in a matter of 5 minutes. Toronto has diversity in its culture. New Orleans has such as distinct, bold and historic culture that is unique to its people. The beautiful sounds of classical jazz or the more modern takes, the endless food options that scream Cajun and their welcoming atmosphere and personalities are some of the memorable moments of NO.

My trip to NOLA was life changing. I understand the value of volunteers and have seen such strong community advocacy and development. The strength I have heard from people’s narratives reassure me that the people of NOLA are there to stay. My group was amazing and I know I have met friends that will last me a life time. I learned a lot about myself and have refocused my goals in life. The passion of being a community facilator, and advocate of Human rights were ignited by the Civil Rights Movement tour.

Volunteering was very rewarding. The heat was incredible and definitely took a toll on my body with the physical labour. We worked with community based organizations such the green initiatives, community rebuilding, community resources and rebuilding of houses. Let me say, if you need your house fixed up…I’m your woman! Even though I went to give to the people of New Orleans, what they taught me was so much more.

With an education in Social Work and Politics, the systemic and structural barrier the society faces was so apparent. I would challenge anyone that claims that racism does not exist. The dominance and boldness of racial segregation in the south was unbelievable to me. The detrimental effects of our capitalist system have made parts of Louisiana remind me of Guyana, a third world country. These issues of class and displacement go far beyond the “natural disasters” that has hit New Orleans. The lack of governmental support, efforts to rebuild and racism have been combined to leave minority groups and lower class areas to either live in poverty, run away from the places they called home and never return. I question this US “superpower” title after seeing the disregard they have shown these communities. In all honesty, North America is first to criticize and point fingers to other countries that aren’t “taking care of their citizens”. They create this binary opposite of “we” and “them”. The “others” primarily being the Middle East, and Southern America have been bullied by the North because of their lack of “compassion and human rights”. After seeing what I saw in Louisiana, hearing their stories and a critical analysis…I say that this superpower should take care of their own before they take a superior stance and become the expert of how to create a good society for other countries. It’s been seven years later….

I left a part of me in NOLA and God willing, I will return very soon.


Unforgettable Thursday, May 17 2012 

NOTE: Was unable to post this on the day it was written. These words reflect my thought process on Thursday, May 10, 2012.

As I sit in the driveway of the opportunity house we have been working on this week (which others in our class worked on last week), I find myself daydreaming about the family that will one day purchase this home and begin a new life here. Will they have children who play with chalk in the driveway? Will they have a car? And if so, what type of car? Maybe they’ll set up a BBQ in the backyard and have neighbours over once they settle in. Although we do not have the opportunity to meet the home owners of this house (tragically they passed after Hurricane Katrina in 2006), I am fulfilled knowing that our hard work will benefit someone’s life and provide them with the opportunity to come home.

A man who owns the lumber yard in St. Bernard Parish struck up a conversation with me in the Family Dollar parking lot the other day and remarked that in life there will be ups and downs no matter what and one must be prepared to fall down into the valley when hard times hit and be willing to WORK to make it back to the top of the mountain as no one – even God, if that fits your beliefs – will lift you up if you are not positive and determined to make an effort to climb your way out of that valley.

To quote a lovely gentleman I met at the The Green Project last week (he was searching for wood-framed screens for his home), “You only live once, might as well live right”. Luck (or whatever you want to call it) comes and goes, seasons change, lives are birthed and lost… but with ALL this comes a new beginning. The areas in New Orleans that flooded after Katrina hit are now once again experiencing regrowth, rebuilding, reintegration, and return. Being here has caused me to really appreciate the meaning of YOLO.

My back reached a point of exhaustion two evenings ago (I experience chronic pain due to minor scoleosis, a curve in my spine) and screamed out for me to take a rest and pay more attention to myself. Part of me feels selfish and a bit useless – which is quite frustrating – but I know that taking it slow will be beneficial in the long run. Everyone has been so kind and supportive (walking to get me pizza when I stayed in one night, buying supplies from the drug store to help ease the pain, making my bed for me since bending under the bunk was quite taxing at first, checking in to see how I’m doing etc. etc.) and I just want to take this moment to give a shout out to y’all! Thank you so very much. Your concern and understanding has helped me keep my cool and avoid feeling guilty for having to take time off from our primary mission in NOLA as student volunteers.

I am itching to get back to work so I will quickly finish this reflection and continue painting the flat ends of the shoeboards in the last few rooms of this house on Seville in Gentilly. Miniscule work compared to some of the larger jobs that are taking place around me (in that the progress made is much more noticeable), however I continue to repeat the St. Bernard Project motto in my mind and I feel gratified with my work: “Quality, not quantity”. Although timing and deadlines are important, it is essential that these homes are built with care so that the family that moves in can be proud of their home and enjoy it for many years to come. As Pastor Randy said, you may really want to get that 2×4 up and get as much work done as possible in a day… but if the homeowner or another resident comes by and starts to speak to you, give them that time to have a conversation as they may need you more than that 2×4 needs to be installed. Toronto2Nola… forever in my heart.

Peace, love, happiness, and social justice… JMN

Something from nothing…

… and back to the earth.

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