Wednesday, April 28, 2010

April 28, 2010, If This House Could Talk

By Trisha Belbot (volunteer on the Barlow House)

On March 1, 2010, I found myself navigating the roads of a familiar place—Southeast Louisiana. I lived in the area for one and a half years following Katrina, and was returning for a volunteer trip. I traveled these roads many times before; I remember distinctly the devastation that blanketed the region. I still get a lump in my throat remembering the first house I saw that had a waterline mark over my head. Still, I was happy to be there again, and to see the continued effort to rebuild. I experienced the New Orleans area for the first time with my husband and children at my side. This time, I was in the company of a friend who had never gotten to see firsthand what Hurricane Katrina left in its wake. As I drove down Judge Perez Blvd. toward Meraux, she read the story of the Barlow family; the family whose house we would be working on. I was very grateful (and pleasantly surprised) to get a background…it made it all that much more personal.

As we pulled up to the house, a thought crossed my mind. If this house could talk, what would it say? I imagine it had seen a lot. It had seen families and friends gathered. Seen children playing and parents coming home from work. It sheltered them from those afternoon pop-up thunderstorms, and kept out the humid, summer heat.

It also had darker memories. Memories of newscasts reporting on a hurricane approaching. Ones of shuttered windows, wind, and rain. Then the water came, and it saw the walls that once protected a family swell and mold.

Katrina damaged every home in St. Bernard Parish, and this home was among them.

As we worked on the house, I realized we were helping to turn the tide against those dark memories. There were new ones being made. Ones of hands from all over the country helping to build a home, and helping people get back on their feet. In our group alone, there were hands from Maryland, Alabama, Maine, and Michigan mudding the walls a family would one day hang pictures on. We laughed, learned about each other, and listened to music together as we worked. We learned new skills with the help of our team leaders and site supervisor, and it felt great to be a part of something bigger than myself.

As I finished my last day and left my message for the Barlow family in the journal created for them, I was sad to go. It was such a blessing to work alongside a great group of people, and I wish I could have stayed to see the Barlow family welcomed into their finished home. Driving away, I hoped those good memories forged as we all worked together would continue to be built upon. I imagine they will. There will be memories of children sleeping comfortably in their own beds, and parents happy to have a place to call their own at long last. Maybe a wall will have memories of the kids measuring themselves against it to see how much they have grown. There will be memories of family get-togethers, holidays, and love. I consider myself lucky to be a part of those new memories, and am so grateful to the St. Bernard Project for allowing me to participate in one of the most important things I could ever do — helping in the recovery of a great community that was and is full of culture, love, hope, and life.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

April 13, 2010, Mr. Mercadel by Kathleen Warner, SBP Team Member

I first met Mr. Mercadel a few months ago when I went out with our construction scout to survey the house. Mr. Mercadel and his dog, Jake, stood on the front porch waiting for us and graciously invited us inside. I had seen many of my clients' houses before. Most often they were mere shells in desperate need of a good scrubbing down. The odd thing about Mr. Mercadel's house, however, was that everything was almost right. The walls were up at least, but you could still see the seams in the sheet rock. The doors were hung, yet they swung the wrong way. The bathroom lacked interior walls and there was water puddling in the ceiling. The house was almost livable yet didn't quite make the mark. A contractor had been hired to work on Mr. Mercadel’s home, yet they took advantage of a very important characteristic of Mr. Mercadel - he cannot see.

Mr. Mercadel has been blind for more than thirty years, the result of being hit by a drunk driver while he was headed home one night. As I sorted through his important documents (all enclosed in braille labeled envelopes) I became furious at the contractor who had left his home undone. As I was driving Mr. Mercadel to his apartment that evening, I discussed the possibility of perusing legal action against the contractor. Mr. Mercadel explained, "I guess I could, but I have always been taught to turn the other cheek."

A month later I had the distinct honor of accompanying Mr. Mercadel to a performance of The Color Purple. The Broadway show had been touring around the country and raising money for homeowners like Mr. Mercadel along the way. We sat in the front row, right by the orchestra pit, and it was wonderful to see a smile on Mr. Mercadel's face.

Mr. Mercadel moved into his home three weeks ago thanks to the great volunteers from Christian Aid Ministries. Last week he had his Welcome Home Party along with nearly 250 volunteers. Through the crowd of people I noticed there was someone missing - his constant companion, Jake. He explained that he had to put Jake to sleep after the doctors had told him he was suffering from arthritis. He was sad, yet hopeful as always for a bright future, just like the city he loves.

Watch a video of Mr. Mercadel and Jake.

Friday, April 9, 2010

April 9, 2010, St. Bernard Project goes to French Quarter Fest

The sounds of the trumpet and the smell of boiling crawfish will fill the air of the French Quarter this weekend. While this may seem like a normal day in New Orleans, this weekend is anything but – it’s French Quarter Fest. With more than 180 concerts and 250 hours of music, it’s one of the best festivals New Orleans has to offer (and it’s free!).

And St. Bernard Project will be there. Right in the middle of Jackson Square and the St. Louis Cathedral, one of New Orleans most famed landmarks. This year, SBP is a Community Partner with French Quarter Festival. We will be present with a table set up in front of the Cabildo that will showcase our deserving clients, the work we do in the New Orleans area, as well as the vast amount of work that still needs to be done.

The great thing about French Quarter Fest is that it still attracts a big local crowd, as well as tourists who come to see the amazing music and experience New Orleans most famous neighborhood. The SBP team is hoping that our presence at the festival will attract locals who want to volunteer with St. Bernard Project to rebuild New Orleans, as well as tourists who are interested in getting involved by either donating, spreading the word, or bringing down a volunteer group in the future.

This weekend, we will be talking a lot about our texting campaign. By texting NOLA to 50555, $5 will be donated to St. Bernard Project and Deborah Vita and her three grandchildren, who nearly five years later are still displaced from their home in St. Bernard Parish. Read more about Ms. Vita and her family here. We think this is a great way for festival-goers to do their part to rebuild New Orleans in one minute or less!

All SBP team members will be easily recognized by our bright blue “I Did It For New Orleans” T-shirts, with the information on what to text on the back. If you’re heading to the festival this weekend, stop by our table, say hi and learn more about St. Bernard Project and how you can help!

Happy Festival Season!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

April, 8, 2010, University of Nevada Students Enjoy Spring Break Alternative Style

By Kristina Colyer
University of Nevada, Reno
Student United Way President

Hello from the University of Nevada, Reno! I returned from volunteering in New Orleans about two weeks ago, but the memories of Alternative Spring Break spent with St. Bernard Project are fresh in my mind. I think I can speak for our whole group when I say we wish we were still there.

I am the president of a service and outreach club on campus called Student United Way, which is part of United Way of America. This spring break, I was the team leader for our Nevada group of 9 people in New Orleans. Our group stayed at Camp Hope, and our task was to mud an opportunity housing project on Mehle Street, and boy did we do just that.

It turns out that not only did our team rock at mudding, but we really enjoyed it. We realized we were mudding nerds when our team got excited about pre-made mud after two days of mixing our own. Our team spent five days mudding, laughing and helping a family move into a brand new home. By the end of each day we were covered in dust and mud and loved every second of it.

Although signs of rebuilding and rebirth were everywhere in St. Bernard Parish and New Orleans, I still couldn’t believe the amount of empty lots that are still there. Empty lots dyed a pinkish-red to indicate no threat of mold were everywhere in the parish, and the streets were quiet. It is unfortunate that so many people across the country don’t know about the extent of the remaining damage from Hurricane Katrina. Five years is long enough to forget Katrina ever happened. That’s why I believe so strongly in service trips like this one and organizations like St. Bernard Project. It opened our eyes to a world outside of our own lives and communities.

One of the highlights of the trip was meeting the residents. The appreciation and warm welcome we received from them was incredible. Everyone there has a story and they made our experiences and our work real. Being from Nevada, I cannot fathom experiencing a hurricane let alone one like Katrina. Coming home, my fellow students think I’m crazy for wanting to volunteer during my spring break, when truth is I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend it.

Working with St. Bernard Project this year made our trip worthwhile. The people we met and worked with were amazing and made it unforgettable. SBP made it easy to volunteer, as volunteerism should be. I loved learning about the organization and the work their team does. Thank you St. Bernard Project and we will see you next year!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

April 7, 2010, Two Houses by SBP Site Supervisor Elizabeth Ackerman

Lauren Lewis is in the kitchen preparing a massive pot of rice and beans. Her six-year-old son, Tahj, just threw the football over the fence into the neighbor’s yard, and her cousin Kenny is in the driveway piecing together the grill that he just bought for Lauren and Tahj’s welcome home party.

I walk into the house and see it again as the open space it was just ten weeks ago, studs and joists with nothing in between. I think back to the first week, when my dad volunteered with me and a family from New York helped insulate the house, even the twelve-year-old child. It was also the first time I met Kenny, an incredibly generous man who worked on the house every step of the way.

The second week girls from Wheelock College found their inner Rosie the Riveters and screwed drywall to the studs and joists to create walls and ceilings.
The third week a church group from New Jersey finished drywall and began mudding. I remember the youngest volunteer as he finished Lauren’s shoe and purse closet. Another volunteer promised to raise money for furniture (and cried as she hugged Lauren). And another made phone calls to buy Lauren a washer/dryer. All of the happy faces when Kenny delivered chicken and jambalaya that Lauren and her mother had just fixed for the volunteers.
I worked on a different house during the fourth week, but I still see the work from that week in the now seamless seams between the pieces of drywall. Week five my mother and a church group from Iowa painted Tahj’s room blue and installed flooring, soffet, baseboard, and doors. On week six the Canadians volunteered working on tile, doors, and painting. The same week Church of the Brethren volunteers worked tirelessly on the exterior of the house. The seventh week a group including Jay and not-so-silent Bob installed cabinets, and finally the eighth and final week of construction more Church of the Brethren volunteers built a beautiful bar and installed appliances.
Eight weeks of songs, corny jokes, and hard work. Over fifty volunteers who dedicated themselves to finishing their part of the Lewis house.

The house sounds different now. There are children running around, Lauren’s niece making baby noises. Low, drawn-out conversation. The smells have changed, too. The beans and rice on the stove are filling the whole house with a rich aroma, and there is scented soap in the bathroom. The whole house has finally slowed from the fast pace of a construction site to the slow, comfortable tempo of daily life.

Thanks to volunteers, Lauren can now set food on the bar. Tahj can hide in the shoe and purse closet; Kenny can hopefully start fixing up his own house. The Lewis house is finished, and as I walk through at Lauren’s welcome home party I see two houses: the house that volunteers built, and the home where Lauren and Tahj live.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

April 6, 2010, AmeriCorps NCCC member gives up spring break to work with SBP

Hello! My name is Emily and I am a corps member in AmeriCorps NCCC from the Perry Point, MD campus. A few days before we departed on our first adventure of our service year, we were informed about an opportunity to come to New Orleans and volunteer with the St. Bernard Project. There was a lot of excitement over this opportunity for many reasons, but especially because Liz McCartney had recently spoken at our induction and everyone was excited to be a part of this great project. About 45 corps members applied to be a part of the composite team by writing a letter of interest and nine were chosen. I was fortunate enough to be one of them. Coming to New Orleans meant being separated from our team for a month, a 20 hour van ride and missing our spring break, but I don’t think anyone gave that a second thought; we are all extremely excited to be here. Working with the St. Bernard Project has been an eye-opening experience to say the least. I am shocked at all the devastation that still remains in the New Orleans area but more surprised at how much a small group of dedicated people can accomplish, it’s truly amazing. Most of my team works in the field learning and teaching different sorts of construction skills and I work in the office. We have been here for two weeks and we have two weeks to go. I have learned so much, most importantly how crucial St. Bernard Project is to the community. I have talked to several homeowners that are incredibly grateful for all this organization does and that makes all of our hard work worth it. I am so excited to be working with St. Bernard Project, and sad that we can’t stay longer because I believe in the great work they are doing and am happy to be a part of it.

Monday, April 5, 2010

April 5, 2010, The Garden of Prayer by Han Nguyen

Today, Shirts Across America volunteers were recruited to help the Garden of Prayer congregation gut one of its facilities for future use as potential warehouse space for St. Bernard Project.

The facility served as a community fitness center in its life before Katrina. Because more than 60 percent of Garden of Prayers congregation was unable to return to their homes after Hurricane Katrina, the building remained virtually untouched for nearly five years.

Dried mud is caked on everything. Plastic house plants, chairs and paperwork dangle from the ceilings -- exactly where the floodwaters left them in retreat.

This building is a stark reminder of the great work left to be done in Greater New Orleans.


Not fit for fitness
Not Fit for Fitness
A view of the ground floor of the Southern Athletic Club from the balcony. The white panels of the balcony still bear the waterline from the devastating flood.
The lobby of the Southern Athletic Club sees physical activity for the first time in five years since Hurricane Katrina filled the entire ground floor with raging flood water.
Spin Class
Spin Class
Bicycles sit stationary in the former spin class room. Silhouettes of Shirts Across America volunteers light up the room with activity.

Out with the old...
Out with the old...
A Shirts Across America volunteer tossing mold-infested, mud-caked carpet into a dumpster.

Learn more about SBP partner, Shirts Across America

Click to see more photographs from this project.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

April 1, 2010, The Short Sentences

Hey all! My name is Lisa Martin and I am a client services coordinator for the St. Bernard Project. A few weeks ago I received an email from a New Orleans resident that needs help recovering from Hurricane Katrina, and the last line read:

“If you can help me to get back into my home, I will certainly consider it a miracle of my life.”

“Oh my goodness!” was my immediate exclamation after reading that sentence. As I reflect on my reaction, I realize how many different ways I was interrupting that sentence. Initially, I just felt overwhelmingly sad. Sad, that an American citizen is living in a condition that moving back to her home of 30 years seems insurmountable. I immediately wanted to stop what I was doing, pick up tools, and rebuild her house. Every time I read that sentence it pulls at my heart.

Mad. I was so angry that a person was still displaced, living in Texas nearly five years after Hurricane Katrina made landfall.

Next, I felt hope. Hopeful, that she is one step closer to driving down her street lined with oak trees and opening the door to her rebuilt home.

I felt comfort that we can work together to rebuild her home and life. I felt comfort that I can work with her to lessen her anxiety, uncertainty and worries about the rebuilding process.

I admire this woman’s perseverance and determination to return to her home in New Orleans. In just hours, Hurricane Katrina changed every aspect of her life. She has overcome many obstacles, but she still needs help.

Since I began working with Hurricane Katrina survivors in New Orleans, it has been the short sentences that have continued to be the most lasting impressions.

I was standing with a woman in her home that was completely gutted to the studs when she said, “We have been blessed much more than we have been devastated”.

Hurricane Katrina was sad, horrible, devastating, and catastrophic. However, the residents of New Orleans can still find blessings, miracles, hope and comfort among all of this destruction, and that is what is truly inspiring and motivating for me.