In the spring semester of my junior year as an undergrad I remember watching a new show that had just premiered on MTV called “The Buried Life.” The show is a reality documentary series that follows 4 friends who travel across North America as they try to complete a list of 100 things they wanted to before they die. For every item that they cross off of their list, they help a random stranger achieve one of their dreams and encourage them to complete their own lists. I instantly fell in love with the show and could not wait for each week’s episode. There was one episode in particular that I still remember to this day because it absolutely ripped my heart out.
The group of guys travel to New Orleans where they meet a girl named Queen. In 2005 when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, Queen’s world was torn apart when she found out that both her mom and her dad had died as a result of the storm. In the chaos that ensued in the following weeks and months after the storm had passed, thousands of people were displaced all over the country, including Queen’s parents. Queen’s mom was transferred to Colorado where she was buried.
Because she was working to piece her life back together, and because of the lack of available funds, Queen was never able to go visit her mom’s grave. “The Buried Life” worked at a local restaurant in New Orleans and used the tips they earned to buy Queen a plane ticket to go to Denver. The episode concludes with two of the guys arriving with Queen at the graveyard where her mother is buried. Queen finally finds the grave and just crumples to the floor and proceeds to sob on her mother’s grave as she says, “I miss you, mom.”
(This intro to the show includes a few seconds of Queen’s story) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GrzWS7fNq74
Here we are, 8 years after the storm, and New Orleans as a whole is still trying to recuperate. During our tour of the city we took a drive to the 9th ward, one of the neighborhoods most heavily impacted by the flooding. Many of the houses still lay vacant, abandoned by their previous occupants who were too overwhelmed by the recovery process, choosing instead to move to another area of city or to leave the city altogether. It was truly heartbreaking to imagine having to leave a city that I have called home for my entire life and no being able to go back. People work so hard to start a family and create a life for themselves in a community, and so many of the people in New Orleans had that literally washed away in a single, tragic day.
Even though hurricane Katrina was such a catastrophic event, there were so many great things that came out it. Community members joined forced to rebuild the city that they called home. Support from all over poured in to assist with this effort. One of those organizations was the St. Bernard Project, a nonprofit started in 2006 that helps rebuild homes damaged by the storm. http://www.stbernardproject.org/about-us/
During our service time we got to paint the exterior of the house and assist with various construction tasks around the property. Our site supervisor, Molly, talked to us about the history of organization and the type of people that they help. She said that about 65% of the people who they assist were scammed by contractors who would promise cheap labor and then leave town as soon as they got the cash they were after. As if it wasn’t bad enough losing their home, they also got scammed out of the only money they had to rebuild. I was so infuriated by this and could not believe that anyone would do that. The SBP is doing so much good in the area though and I’m so glad that people are getting to benefit from their work. I’m so excited to see what the house that we worked on ends up looking like.
At our second service site we worked at a community garden that’s part of the regional chapter of ARC in New Orleans. ARC is an organization that works with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. During our debriefing it dawned on me how unfairly we treat adults with disabilities. We treat so many of them like children and assume that they can’t do anything for themselves. I really liked the fact that ARC provides them the opportunity to get out of the house and to learn life skills that they can use in the future.
The fact that our site leader had such a personal connection to the work that she was doing, was really inspiring. The love that she has for her son (who has Down syndrome) was beyond heartwarming. I still tear up every single time I think about the story she told us about the joy that her son gets from talking to his older sister on the phone every day. She said that he calls her every day, usually in the morning when she’s sleeping. One day he called her and when she answered he said, “Hi sis, I know you’re sleeping, but I just wanted to call you and tell you that I love you.” I still don’t know why, but that just hit me so hard. It stuck with me all day and I kept crying just thinking about it.
On the last day we were there we had a meeting with the Young Leadership Council of New Orleans. http://ylcnola.org/. The organization is a nonprofit that works on developing leadership throughout the city through community projects. How I understood it is that it’s basically a nonprofit that helps others start their own nonprofit. The model that they use to help different groups get started up is really interesting and it’s not something I have seen before. So many people (including me) have all these ideas for groups or projects that they would like to start, but they simply don’t have the resources and help that they need to make those ideas become a reality. What I learned from them as well is that it doesn’t always have to be a huge project in order to make a difference in the community. It’s more about finding out what the community needs and what you can do to satisfy that need.
Overall, this was one of the best weeks I’ve ever had. On top of getting to explore a new city and community, I got to learn a lot about the other people who went on the trip. Nothing makes you bond more than drooling on each other in a van for 17 hours and throwing shampoo and body wash over the community shower stalls all the while belting out songs. One thing for sure is that, this is a week I’ll never forget.