Why We Came Home Wednesday, Aug 26 2015 

TW K10 – The K10 anniversary has produced so much media coverage and reminiscences that it has become overwhelming. Instead of writing and posting I wanted to hide. And I wasn’t even here during Katrina. Hence the trigger warning.

A couple weekends ago I was driving to Mississippi with my chosen-sister Alexis. She was 10 during Katrina and lived in St. Bernard Parish. I was explaining to her the nature of my PhD research and its focus on examining resiliency and recovery in order to figure out why people return after a catastrophic disaster.

She looked at me like I had two heads. “Because it’s home sissy. Where else would we go?” This perfectly sums up what I’ve heard from everyone in the 7 years I’ve been visiting New Orleans. Because it’s home. (Now to turn that sentence into a 100 page dissertation!)

Picture by Amanda Fotes

Picture by Amanda Fotes

Last night I read an article by Lolis Eric Elie who I had the privilege of meeting several years ago at a Resurrection After Exoneration fundraiser. Lolis is a brilliant writer and this piece captures the spirit of the city in a way unlike I’ve seen anyone do. “Why We Came Home” looks at the good and the bad, the positive and negative, the hope and despair. New Orleans is not a perfect city and never will be, but what city is? It is vibrant and full of hope though, while at the same time teetering on the edge of depression and sadness.

Like my sister Alexis said it’s about home. The piece isn’t worded “Why We Came Back” because that leaves out the essence of New Orleans. It’s “Why We Came Home” because home = NOLA.

do you know what it means

For those who have never been to New Orleans I hope this piece captures some of the vibrancy of the city and yet explains its underbelly. For those who have visited my wish is that you see pieces you remember in Lolis’ words. For those who returned and are rebuilding your lives and your city I hope the author captured your reasons and if not, please share yours in the comments to continue this discussion. For those, like me, who have moved here since Katrina, I’m sure this piece reminds you of your reasons for planting roots in NOLA. For those who evacuated and have yet to make it back, come home soon, we need you here.

New Orleans and Homelessness Tuesday, Jul 23 2013 

The National Alliance to End Homelessness conference is happening this week in Washington and I’ve been following the hashtag #NAEH13 to see what’s new in research and homelessness. Iain de Jong (@OrgCode) posted the following: “New Orleans on track to end chronic homelessness by 2015. Huge high five! #NAEH13”

My first reaction, and my reply tweet to him, was “@OrgCode hmm. I’d be interested to see the research. lose 25% plus of your most at-risk pop’n & have hundreds of bldgs for squatters…”

But I decided to do a bit of research – I am after all a PhD student working at a pan-Canadian research network – before being too hasty. Turns out, there may be some truth to it – at least in terms of how it looks on paper. New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA) has made some great strides in ending, or at least reducing, homelessness.

In a post on OneCPDResourceExchange last week entitled “SNAPS Weekly Focus Guest Blog: Working Together to End Homelessness”, Martha Kegel, Executive Director, UNITY of Greater New Orleans and Stacy Horn Koch, Director of Homeless Policy, City of New Orleans discuss the successes of the plan to end homelessness in New Orleans.

The stats about decreases in homelessness certainly present a clear picture of a dramatic increase (after Hurricane Katrina) and a dramatic decrease. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, there were 2,051 homeless people in New Orleans; two years later that number had jumped to 11,619 people. This number has been steadily declining; in 2009 it dropped to 8,725 and then to 4,903 in 2012. Currently, the number stands at 2,337 – a 47% decrease from last year.

As the chart makes it very clear; homelessness is on the decrease and in a big way, in New Orleans. Kegel and Horn Koch state that the key problem was linked to the impacts of Hurricane Katrina “Just a few years ago, New Orleans had one of the nation’s highest rates of chronic homelessness. This distressing phenomenon was largely due to the lingering effects of the Hurricane Katrina levee failures in 2005, which wiped out the city’s stock of affordable housing, shattered the health and behavioral health systems and scattered the extended family and community networks on which so many vulnerable people once relied.”

The success in reducing homelessness lies with the City of New Orleans, UNITY of Greater New Orleans and the 63 agencies who are part of the Continuum of Care. This partnership model is very much in line with what we are constantly promoting here at the Homeless Hub, the need for a “systems response” to ending homelessness. The network of agencies work together to help find solutions –systemic and individual—to homelessness in New Orleans.

This model has led to some incredible successes. Not only has total homelessness been reduced but there has also been a focus on chronic homelessness. This has decreased 85% since 2009 – from 4,579 to 633. Kegel and Horn Koch highlight this and say, “What was unimaginable only a few years ago is now within sight: New Orleans is on track to become one of the first cities to eliminate the long-term homelessness of people with disabilities, in line with the federal plan to end chronic homelessness by 2015.”

This has been noted elsewhere as well. In 2011, Community Solutions (formerly Common Ground) reported that “Despite overwhelming obstacles, New Orleans, a partner in the 100,000 Homes Campaign, now boasts the country’s highest housing placement rate for homeless adults.” This is a clear part of New Orleans’ 10 year plan to end homelessness.

In addition to using the systems approach, NOLA is also being very strategic. They recognize that with thousands of abandoned buildings it’s easy for people to stay hidden if they choose. Outreach teams for UNITY concentrate on abandoned buildings as a way of tracking where people might be living. As this article from nola.com explains the city also captured unspent grants for recovery given to developers and is using them to build housing for homeless people and to provide rent subsidies. It also explains another strategy where “The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority is making 20 of its properties available for the program, offering each to developers for 10 percent of the appraised value or $1,345, whichever is higher.” This helps ensure that unused housing is being fixed up and that people who otherwise might remain homeless are getting housed.

The resources for people who are homeless, marginally housed, living in poverty or otherwise vulnerable in New Orleans is quite extensive. A great directory has been compiled by UNITY and can be found here.

But a few counter points:

  • A study of geographic origin of homeless people in Houston found that nearly 2% were from Louisiana. While the study has some methodological challenges, this is nearly double the percentage from California, the next highest state of origin.
  • An article in The Stranger from Seattle, points out that New Orleans’ rate of homelessness as a percentage of the population remains high compared to elsewhere.
  • The extended family living situation common in New Orleans means that there could be a large number of “hidden homeless” people: those who are doubling up with family and friends.
  • The New York Times Katrina diaspora map reminds us that people were flung far and wide post hurricane. Many of those who faced challenges returning were those with low incomes and other marginalization issues.
  • There were many challenges for people who owned their homes in proving home ownership and right to title because of a casual inheritance system common in New Orleans. While that legislation was modified in 2009, prior to that it resulted in many people being homeless or facing challenges in being re-housed. Post 2009, many people who were homeless because of this policy were able to return home.
  • There are still about 35,000 blighted properties in New Orleans. Even the best outreach teams can’t check every home, every night to make sure no one is sleeping there.

None of this discounts the successes that New Orleans has had. The progress it has made is nothing short of remarkable. But the broad, systemic problem of homelessness persists and it is going to need concentrated effort from many sectors to end it.

This article also appears in the Homeless Hub’s Research Matters blog.

Meaning of Home Sunday, May 26 2013 

I miss New Orleans soooooooooo much. It literally hurts to miss it this much.

 

miss new orleans

In my Homelessness in Canadian Society class that I taught at Ryerson University for several years, we played a “game” called the “Meaning of Home”. It was an interactive activity designed to get students thinking about the most important factors in defining home and what the loss of these factors (in the process of becoming homeless) might be like.

Having moved around so much in the past few years, and living in a bit of a tenuous housing situation now, I am starting to understand it in such a different way myself. June 2010-February 2012 I lived in Arabi, St. Bernard Parish (I arrived at the end of April but was staying with my students for the month of May). March 2012 to (technically) mid March 2013 I lived in Abita Springs, St.Tammany Parish. But, I spent a month (end of August to end of September) in a hotel in Metairie, and most of October 27 to March 17th in New Jersey in shelters, tents and hotels.

Moving back to Canada, I didn’t know where I would be staying. I planned to couch surf; crashing at my parents or friends until I found something more permanent. I lucked into a great condo for the summer through my PhD supervisor’s connections. It’s very much lacking in furniture but it has (now, thanks to the donations of friends) the basic amenities.

So I have a house (in a sense) but do I have a home? When I was in Louisiana, home usually meant Toronto. When I was in New Jersey I always had to clarify because “back home” could mean Toronto or Louisiana depending upon the topic of conversation. Now that I’m in Toronto, I miss my home/friends/networks/communities in Louisiana. A friend told me today that it was time for me to come back home to New Orleans, and a big part of me agreed with her.

There is also a part of me that I suspect revels in the rootlessness; I know that if I was in Louisiana last week, chances are I’d be in Oklahoma or Texas now helping with recovery efforts in those states. I miss the ability to pick up and go help people, especially because I get so fulfilled from doing that work. In Toronto I feel more stability, in NOLA I felt the freedom of the casual culture.

Of course, there are anchors here in Toronto. I’m dating two amazing guys who I’m very fond of and our connections grow stronger with each date; that couldn’t be maintained if I wasn’t here (at least not to the same degree). I have a fabulous job as Project Coordinator of the Canadian Homelessness Research Network. It’s temporary (til May 2014) but I’m sure there are ways to stay connected to their work after that. I’m back on campus at York University; I lectured twice last week, joined the Senate as a student senator for the Faculty of Environmental Studies, and am lecturing again this week. I’m closer to my family and friends, geographically anyways. I’ll get to go to PWAC@MagNet this year after missing it last year.

And yet, my soul is in New Orleans. There is something about that city that drew me in from the first day I set foot on the soil back in 2008. I miss it every day. There is an expression/picture that became really popular after Katrina that said “Roots Run Deep”. Indeed, in Floodlines, Jordan Flaherty explains that more people from New Orleans live their whole lives not just in the city (compared to other cities across the US) but in the same neighbourhood, often on the same block.

roots run deep

photo by Amanda Fotes

I don’t have those historical roots, but the graft took. I’ve grown into the city and into St. Bernard Parish. While I know I will visit, and hopefully soon, I don’t know when, or even if, I’ll ever be able to spend large chunks of time there again. So much of my heart is there though….

DRO 734-2013 — Hurricane Isaac Wednesday, Aug 29 2012 

For the last two years I’ve been responding to a disaster that has impacted the US around the anniversary of Katrina. Last year I attended a couple Katrina related events and then left for my deployment as a shelter manager in Vermont. My current deployment with the American Red Cross is in my own backyard.

So, an update after the first official night of Hurricane Isaac. I spent Aug. 27th in the Red Cross COOP (Continuity Of Operations Plan) office in Madisonville on the Northshore. It’s a 15 minute drive from my house in bad traffic. That’s where the Southeast Louisiana chapter shelters during a storm. We were extremely short staffed so while my official title is Community Partnerships Lead I helped out with government liaison, staffing, training, and sheltering. I slept on a cot in the photocopier room to stay warm (they kept the building soooooo cold so if the power went out it wouldn’t hurt as quickly) for about 5 hrs.

After getting woken at 5:15 to troubleshoot a shelter issue I decided to get up and at ’em. I did an initial interview with a producer at CTV and some social media but was asked by my leads if I would change roles and head to the town if Franklinton in Washington Parish. I’m embedded at the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. I’m in the headquarters which has reps from the Fire dept, sheriff’s office, health dept, national guard, parish staff, EOP staff etc. The Parish President and council members drop by as do folks from other departments, especially at National Weather Service briefing times.

The storm is moving very, very slowly. We haven’t been hit hard here yet, a few hundred homes without power, some trees down, light to moderate winds and some rain, heavy at times. In other words, a normal day in Louisiana. The storm is coming, it’s just slow.

Other areas haven’t been so lucky. About half a million homes are without power across South Louisiana. Lots and lots of rain and heavy winds. The storm sat over Grand Isle (one of the centers of damage during the oil spill) for hours and hasn’t moved far away. In Plaquemines Parish (also affected by the oil spill and basically wiped off the map in Katrina) damage is wide spread.   There is either a breach or levee overtopping and ppl are reporting 12 ft of water in homes. Ppl are trapped, but rescue efforts are hindered by the weather conditions.

New Orleans has been slammed since last night. Winds of 50-70 miles an hour. Several inches of rain. The storm may continue to affect it with hurricane or tropical storm conditions for another 24 hours. There is street flooding, power is out almost everywhere in the city, and will likely be out at least another couple days.

It’s likely that we’ll get hit soon so I’ll sign off. More when I can. I’m tweeting @TanyaMGulliver and will continue while we have power/signal. We do have a generator so hopefully I’ll have phone or texting capacity.

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.

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

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.

FIVE days… and yes, I’m counting Monday, Apr 23 2012 

Less than one week til we leave for New Orleans and I can’t quite figure out if it feels more real or more dreamlike at this point. May seem strange, but truth often is. On one hand, seeing my bag half-packed on my floor and reading the itinerary emails Tanya and Pascal sent out surely adds to the realness. My mind is running through lists and making imaginary check marks in my brain as I finish the housekeeping tasks that I must complete before locking up my apartment and saying so long to Toronto for a brief – yet inviolable – period of time. However on the other hand, each day that goes by seems a little more unreal than the last. I’m so used to my daily routine in Toronto, having lived on my own in the same apartment for over three years, that any trip becomes quite a production in my mind. I’m a bit of a homebody, so breaking out of my usual habits and going somewhere new is a pretty exciting thought. Funny, because there was a time in my life when almost every day involved going somewhere new… and yet simultaneously staying home. What a privilege to be able to travel for pleasure and know that your home will still be there when you return. Although I believe this is a privilege all should have the right to enjoy, it is clear this is not a reality. It is a rare and wonderful thing to be able to say one’s home is “safe and sound” and I’m humbled by the thought of being able to help others make this dream a reality.

Although this trip is really nothing like living and travelling on a sailboat, I find myself naturally drawing comparisons: the living quarters will be small and communal, we’ll be on the move a lot, we may encounter things that seem unfamiliar, we may miss home, we’ll definitely be excited to learn about our surroundings, and we’ll certainly be eager to contribute in relevant and positive ways that benefit those who have been gracious enough to host our stay.  Most importantly, regardless of how much we read and research about our destination and no matter how much we try to wonder, imagine, and anticipate in order to prepare ourselves, the only way to really experience anything is to go and do and be and see and listen.

And so, my dear Internet, that is what I plan to do. Although I immersed myself in learning as much about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina as possible when I first started this course – and continue to pay attention when I stumble upon new information – I do not want any pre-trip impressions to detract from my ability to experience this new place to the fullest. I look forward to forming my own thoughts and opinions based on all that I go and do and be and see and listen to from April 28th til May 13th, 2012. 

From the Big City to the Big Easy: Maria’s Journey 2 NOLA Saturday, Apr 21 2012 

          The process that I’ve gone through, from receiving the initial acceptance email until now, seven days before the trip, has been a colourful one. One would think that excitement would be the only emotion cursing through my veins – I mean, I’m going to NEW ORLEANS! And while excitement surely is a big part of what I’ve felt since the beginning, I’d have to say that my personal journey leading to this experience has been more dynamic than I’d expected.  

          I was sitting on the couch in my apartment, halfheartedly studying for my psych midterm while totally immersed in an episode of Jeopardy, when I got the first email. I literally jumped off of my couch and threw a pillow at my roommate yelling “NEW ORLEANS!” Of course, he had no idea what I was talking about, but I guess these outbursts came to be normal for us so he didn’t really ask. After sending a frantic thank you email to my instructors, I called my mom and boyfriend and grandmother and dentist (okay, maybe not my dentist) to give them the great news. Everyone was really excited for me and I was elated. New Orleans had always been a place that I had wanted to give back to, and now I was given the opportunity to do so. 

          Upon walking into our first class, I was…nervous. Nervous! I felt like a little kid again, walking onto the playground at a new school, now knowing anyone. Would they like me? Would we get along? Did anyone come from the same program? Am I a total loser? Why am I sweating? Up until this point, I had never really given thought to these types of questions. But I took comfort in the fact that all of these people were here for the same reason I was. And as we all got to know each other, It became clear to me that regardless of our respective disciplines and background, we all possessed a unifying trait that would enable us to understand each other, in one way or another. So the nerves subsided. 

          My reaction to the information I have received across the scope of our classes was an unexpected one, too. Up until this point, I had possessed an average understanding of the facts of Hurricane Katrina. I knew what had taken place, the structural repercussions, and the still ever-present need for relief work. 
But nothing prepared me for the level of social injustice that had been executed after the Hurricane by the state of Louisiana and the federal government. Most of it was unearthing the various behaviours of the state and witnessing the social repercussions, and my dominating response was anger. I was angry about what had been done to the people of the state. I was angry with the lackluster relief response to those in need. Hearing of these injustices created such a dissonance in my view of how human beings should help one another in a crisis.

          Both of my instructors opened my eyes to a world of new information that, hadn’t I participated in this class, I wouldn’t have come to understand as critically.  And it was in focusing on the existing relief networks and continued nation-wide efforts that have given me hope. It’s a weird feeling, to experience such emotions towards an event I had no part in experiencing. It’s also a discouraging one – should I have hope for the victims when I don’t know what it felt like to lose it? But I’ve realized that having hope for change is the driving force behind doing good, and exciting hope in others.

          During these last few days before the trip, I still have the same jitters as expected. Sure, I’m excited for the adventure. I’m nervous to be in an unfamiliar place. I’m angry that there’s still an existing need for help. But I’m hopeful, I’m prepared. I still have as much excitement as I did when I first received my email, but I’ve been so lucky to have been educated and prepared for this trip as I have been. I’m not expecting to put up some drywall and save New Orleans. But I am prepared to give as much of myself over to this experience, in hopes that I’ll contribute a fraction of what it will take to give the people of New Orleans the strength to stand on their own two feet again. 

See you in NOLA, 

Maria

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