May 18, 2014: As I sit on the plane back to Boston, my skin a little burned, my body a tad beat up, bruised and sore; my heart is filled with incredible memories and a deep love for NOLA, Habitat for Humanity and the many new friends I had the honor of working side by side with this week.
This city is so rich with history and culture. Everywhere we went, incredible NOLA jazz emanated from clubs and street corners. And the food? Wow…just WOW! We had savory jambalaya at Coop’s, beignets and chickory coffee at Café du Monde, delicious red fish with rice and beans at Giacomo’s, and the most amazing charbroiled oysters I have ever eaten at Katie’s restaurant’s food booth at the Boogaloo Festival on the Bayou on our last night. We did some culinary damage in our down time for sure!After a great day of sightseeing in the Garden District, seven miles of walking through the neighborhood seeing the beautiful homes of Sandra Bullock, John Goodman, Anne Rice and others; Lafayette cemetery and parts of the French Quarter it was time to do what we came here for, help build homes for deserving families who were victims of Hurricane Katrina. Day one on the job site was a little intimidating for me at first. Most of us were assigned to a home that had just been framed and was in its early stages of construction. Our work involved placing studs, hanging blocking and OSB to the interior kitchen walls. Lots of measuring and hammering, and I even got my hands on a skill saw! At the very end of the day, in typical NOLA fashion, a cloud mass approached and a few sprinkles quickly became a deluge of torrential rain. As some scrambled to get power tools into a dry place, others dashed into one of the more finished homes to ride it out. I was soaked to the bone, but honestly after the blazing NOLA sun of the day that cool shower was just what the doctor ordered!The next day, we moved to another home adjacent to the first (there were three total homes that we worked on that were all close to one another), and I was assigned with some of the other Berklee team to hang siding. They don’t use vinyl siding in NOLA as it can’t hold up to the wind and weather, so the siding we hung had a mix of concrete in it. This made it durable (and later we’d find easy to paint on) but it was heavy and kicked off a lot of dust when cut. Debrina was our master cutter for the week, and she was an ace at it! After getting past my initial fear of the rickety ladder I was given (note to all future “Habitaters” avoid the aluminum extension ladders at all costs and after receiving your assignment for the day, make a beeline to the container to snag a good one), I got the hang of it and it was wonderful to see the siding go up and the house looking more finished. The deluge from the day before, coupled with uneven ground created a muddy river on the side of the house I was working on with Suzanne Clark, our Berklee faculty team member. With her creative ingenuity, Suzanne and I built a “bridge” of sorts made out of scraps of 2×4’s and unused OSB boards so we had a level and stable place to rest our extension ladders. Safety first! This siding task was almost a two day gig, but by the end of day three we had the house totally sided. On day four at the same home, Ben our Habitat site leader tasked us with puttying nail holes and caulking seams. He saw that the Berklee team was very detail oriented and as this house was in the finishing stages he needed that kind of work ethic from the volunteers. We were certainly up for the task! More ladder work and a caulk gun that wouldn’t cooperate, but another great and rewarding day as we were soon going to be putting on paint. This owner picked the color “Bourbon Street Blue”. Habitat gives the homeowners the opportunity to choose their home and trim color, the type of flooring (veneers or carpet), and the tile and counter tops in their kitchen. On our final day on the site, we got to work alongside two of the homeowners. I was assigned on the ladder again, and on the same side of the house with the uneven ground. I set my extension ladder, but it was still rickety. I put a shim under one leg and climbed up, but quickly was ordered down by our site leader. Someone had dismantled the bridge Suzanne and I had constructed over the “Muddy River of NOLA”, so one of the Americorps volunteers and I put a less impressive but still useful version back down quickly, we got our paint brushes and paint cups, and I headed back up the ladder and got to work. Donna one of the homeowners was painting below me all morning, and it was incredible to hear her story and get to know her. She was five months pregnant when Katrina hit. Donna and her family followed the evacuation order but still got stuck getting out of NOLA. After 16 hours of being stuck in traffic, camping in the woods and fearing what they were both leaving and heading towards, they made it to Northwestern University where they spent the next two months in a makeshift shelter the college had created in their gymnasium. Sleeping on twin mattresses on the floor, the college opened their dining hall so the families could eat three meals a day and had a safe place to temporarily stay. Donna’s daughter was born premature and was a very tiny 2.5 pounds at birth, but she’s now eight years old and doing great. Although Donna did ask me if I had any kids, and when I said no she said “Do you want one?” and laughed! Donna and her family eventually made it down to Wilmington, NC to stay with relatives. But they had to make frequent trips by car back and forth from NC to Louisiana as the city of New Orleans demanded they deal with their abandoned properties. This was of course a financial burden on the family as it cost them $350.00 in gas to make the trip. When Donna returned to her apartment, it was completely destroyed and a car was in the middle of it having been driven into the property from the force of the water. Donna’s mother’s house was a two story, and the bottom half was ruined but her top floor was in tact. She was able to renovate and stay and she is happily back in her home now. In September of 2008, Donna moved back to NOLA. With everything she had been through, finding an affordable place to live with her damaged credit was very difficult. After working with a credit counselor and getting back on track she was looking to buy but no one would help her. A cousin told her about Habitat and she didn’t call immediately, but tucked the information away. After dealing with awful property managers, and not getting anywhere on her quest for a home for her family, Donna called Habitat. That was ten months ago, and now she has a home in the works. Donna’s home was the most unfinished of the homes we worked on, but she told us it should be ready for move in around the holidays. Knowing that my hands played a small part in making these houses truly homes for people like Donna was amazing and heartwarming! Donna has welcomed us back to her house anytime, and with my new cravings for Jambalaya and all NOLA cuisine, you can expect a knock on your door next Spring Miss Donna!After lunch on our final day, it was back up on the ladders for our second and final coat of “Bourbon Street Blue”. As always, time passed quickly as we worked away and laughed with our fellow volunteers and the site leaders and soon, Mo (our awesome driver) was there with his cousin to pick us up. I found myself not wanting to leave. I had a little bit more paint in my cup, and noticed a few spots on the back wall of the house that were missed, so I laid down on my back on the porch to do some final touch ups. Then helped Eve hammer in a few nails a bit further so we could finish up some more puttying on the new wood that had been hammered in earlier that day. It was hard to say goodbye to the work site and our new friends, but our time had come to an end. As we drove off, exhausted in the best possible way, my eyes welled up and my heart swelled with love and pride for my colleagues and myself.We rushed back to the hotel to clean up, and head out for our final night in NOLA. We had heard about the annual Bayou Boogaloo and Cajun Festival so we decided to check it out. What a great time! There were tons of people kaying in the bayou, rows and rows of tents filled with incredible artisans peddling their wares, every kind of food you could dream of and three stages of music from traditional cajun, NOLA jazz to more mellow, folky rock bands. We even ran into some of the college kids from Susquehanna University who worked on the site alongside us all week! After we had exhausted the festival, we piled back into cabs to go down to Frenchman street to hear a bit more music and check out an outdoor air market. It was really hard to go back to the hotel as I just wanted the whole experience to last forever, but with a 5:00AM pick up from “Mo” to get to the airport, we made our way home to sleep. May 19, 2014: Arriving back in Boston was surreal, and my level of exhaustion high. I find that I’m still processing this entire experience, but I would not have traded it for the world. I am so incredibly thankful and grateful to Berklee, the Gracenotes Committee, my new friends for life who worked alongside me all week, and my awesome colleagues in Student Affairs for sponsoring and supporting me on this trip. It has changed me, in ways that I am just beginning to understand. I found myself drawn to the construction trucks I saw on Newbury Street this AM. Somehow my morning didn’t seem right without donning a tool belt, grabbing a hammer, filling up my caulk and paint stained Nalgene bottle and scaling an extension ladder. I have so much respect for this work, but even more respect for the amazing people of New Orleans. The love and pride that they have for their city, and the people who live and visit there is truly awe inspiring. I’m already thinking about how I can pay my own way to go back next year, and also about other Habitat work I can do here in Massachusetts. God Bless NOLA and it’s residents, and thank you for letting me leave a little piece of myself with you! I will never forget what you have given me either, and I will continue to pay it forward. xxoo, Shannon : )