Well, I’ve been back in Boston for a few days now, and I admit I’ve not yet fully digested the emotions and experiences of volunteering with New Orleans Habitat for Humanity through Berklee’s Gracenotes trip. Having never been to the “Birthplace of Jazz”, I made the journey with few preconceived expectations. The culture, local attractions, cuisine, and condition of the city after the 2005 hurricane and the rebuilding that followed…I was completely in the dark. The only thing I knew with certainty was that I’d hear lots of diverse, amazing music. And I was not disappointed!
Our group comprised nine Berklee employees—three faculty and six staff members. Some of us knew others on the trip, though in many cases, not very well. We were pleasantly surprised to find that our job site, in the seventh ward, was within easy walking distance from our hotel in the French Quarter. When we showed up on day one, the site offered no more than cinder block supports and an outer foundation. Andrew, our Habitat team leader, gave us the safety basics and put us right to work. At first, every new assignment was exciting. Build 40 (million, it seemed) king jacks? You got it! Join those boards by “toenailing” the nail? Sounds like fun! Whack your thumb a couple dozen times with the hammer to prove how hard you worked? No problem! (Ok, no one asked us to do that last one, but boy was I good at it.) And by the end of the first day, with all those pieces of lumber, nails, and swollen fingers, we had made a floor to be proud of.
Each night, after a hard day’s work (and lengthy shower), though exhausted, most of us skipped relaxation by the poolside or a nap in favor of exploring the neighborhood—some times all together, other times in small groups. We experienced no shortage of live music—on Frenchman Street, Bourbon Street, various street corners, and most restaurants and bars—featuring styles from all over the country and world.
Some of my favorite moments and places include:
- The art galleries on Royal Street, featuring funky art and costumes from myriad styles and eras
- Dinner a Bacchanal, a “best kept secret”, patio-style restaurant and performance venue in the courtyard of a fine wine and cheese shop
- Trying (and liking) my first oyster, despite the face I’m making in Sara Tomassetti’s photo
- Taking the trolley through the Garden District, past thousands of Mardi Gras beads hanging from trees, power lines, balconies, and anything they can snag on, to Jacques-Imo’s Cafe for a tasty dinner
- Dancing to the same magnificent, blaring 18-to-20-piece brass band on Frenchman Street two nights in a row
- Passing by a filming of HBO television show True Blood (though no celebrities were on set at the time)
- Experiencing the legendary music and art of historic Preservation Hall and meeting the venue’s owner Sandy Jaffe
- Touring the upper and lower ninth wards and hearing about the 2005 devastation and efforts since to rebuild the city (including stops at the Musician’s Village and Brad Pitt’s Make It Right solar-powered homes)
- Stopping at Cafe du Monde for a beignet, so I can confirm once and for all that I don’t care for them
- Searching our seventh-ward neighborhood for the horse whose neigh sounded in the distance each day. On the last day, the horse and owner appeared in the lot across the street from our build site.
Looking back, it’s astounding that we experienced all that we did in one short week, on top of seven hours each day of challenging and strenuous labor, sore and swollen limbs, sunburn, and sleep deprivation. And it was totally worth it. I think, to an extent, we fed off each other’s energy to keep our spirits and curiosity high and to push ourselves to experience all that we could in the limited time we had together in New Orleans. By the last day of our stay, not only did we have all the second-story walls up on our house (that’s teamwork!), but we no longer felt like strangers; many of us formed bonds, which, I’m sure, will last for years to come. In New Orleans, I helped build not only a house but a Berklee family. This amazing opportunity provided by the Gracenotes program, for me, was the beginning of a long, loving relationship with Habitat for Humanity and the Birthplace of Jazz. Many thanks to my colleagues and the other Habitat volunteers who made this trip a life-changing experience.