It happened in the blink of an eye. A life-changing experience with 10 colleagues from different areas of the college. Our 6-day trip to New Orleans has come to an end, but the friendships formed, lessons learned, and the imprints this trip have left have only just begun to find a home in my heart. <3
I was surprised to learn that we’d be helping build not one, but THREE homes in various stages of construction – all within a stone’s throw of one another. I’m embarrassed to say that until the beginning of this week, I had only ever assisted my husband on small projects around the house – like painting and mounting wall art. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to get my hands dirty and swing a hammer (safely of course)!
On day one I conquered the unruly extension ladder and fickle caulk gun, prepping one of the houses for an exterior paint job. After lunch, I was pumped to hammer some nails through the “OSB” (particle board) into the “jack” and “king” studs on the house across the street. We were faced with the challenge of working through unwanted downpours turned thundershowers, which took a toll on both the site and our inexperienced bodies. The physical labor was definitely exhausting, but also a welcomed challenge.
The next day we got to work measuring cutting and fastening window trim for openings around the unfinished house. It was one of the coldest days New Orleans had seen in a long time, but still quite sunny. I heard locals on the street likening the weather to “Antarctica”! HA! I told them they should hang out in Boston for a winter or two! I learned how not to cut my fingers off using the table saw, and finally got up the courage to use it that afternoon. I let out a nerdy squeal of excitement on my first cut – wheee!!! Remembering to drink water and reapply sunscreen that day was tough because of the chilly wind.
Day three, I was faced with an unexpected case of dehydration and was sent home from the job site early after experiencing some severe symptoms. I was frustrated to have fallen victim to a seemingly preventable ailment, and even more upset that I couldn’t work a full day. I hydrated and rested up for day four, which is when we painted the full exterior of one of the houses! Seeing the transformation of this house from bare siding to “Bourbon Street Blue” was such a rewarding experience. It really made me feel like we accomplished something BIG!
This was also my most memorable day on the job for two reasons: one, I got to climb on the roof and see a magnificent view of the New Orleans East neighborhood and lake Ponchartrain from a much higher and wider perspective, and two, I got to work alongside Shell-Donna; one of the lovely ladies who is thrilled to call one of these houses her HOME. Her heartfelt story warmed my soul. Donna is a gracious and strong woman who, in the face of adversity, exudes so much positivity – you just want to hug her! After a long week, it’s easy to whine about aches and pains, the hot sun and the hard work, but it’s people like Donna who make it all worthwhile. Her deep gratitude for all the help she’s received from Habitat staff and volunteers was evident, and her permanent smile – infectious.
A Katrina victim during her 5th month of pregnancy, Donna, her sister and her mother evacuated their homes and embarked on a 16-hour journey by car to Northwestern State University in Natchitoches Louisiana. She lived in the gymnasium on two dorm mattresses and received 3 meals a day for 2 months. The stress induced premature labor, and Donna gave birth to her daughter Avahna Jolie at 7-months. She was born just under 3 pounds, and once nursed to a healthy weight, Donna connected with her uncle, who allowed she, her mother and the baby to stay at his home on the military base nearby. A few months later and after several expensive trips back and forth, they moved home to New Orleans to rebuild. Their 2-story home was damaged, but not beyond repair.
Today, Avahna is 8 years old. Her proud mother showed me pictures of her daughter in a beautiful white dress, at Avahna’s recent Baptism. Donna heard about Habitat through a friend, but was unsure of how she could benefit from the organization with such a low credit score. She finally made contact and the rest is history. Donna, a single, hard-working mother, who works two jobs to support her family, is an example to us all to never give up hope and to never give up the fight. Her cheery disposition and her sunny outlook on life gave me the chills. I am beyond thrilled to say we – with the selfless assistance of Habitat staff and countless volunteers – helped Donna come back home.
To Berklee and the Gracenotes Committee, I am thankful to have been given this incredible opportunity. To my Berklee colleagues, who I could not have survived this trip without – I am proud to call you my friends. We’ve learned a lot about each other in the last week, and I’m happy to have shared in this amazing experience of giving back to New Orleans with each of you.
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