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May 11, 2010

Dear Gettysburg,

Hi, how are you? I am confident enough to say that I do not miss you yet. I hope you do not take offense, you are just a handful this time of year and I think we both need some "me" time. In the meantime, I think you would enjoy what we have experienced so far on our New Orleans Immersion Project:

We started out with a wonder 4am trip to the city. I wish I could tell you more about the travel, but I was not conscious for the most of it. (you try waking a 20 year up at 4am!) Anyway after finding our awesome white van, we arrived at Camp Hope. It is a great establishment run by Chuck (who is quite the character) and other volunteers. Basically, it is a converted school with barracks on the second floor and a hang out area with offices etc, on the first floor. The vibe at first in the place was very different and I feel that sometimes if more people lived this way, we would get much more accomplished and consume much less. There are over 150 people here, but it is definitely not overwhelming. Camp Hope to me seems like a sweet commune (not like USSR) camp where everyone shares and has the same goal: rebuilding NOLA.

After we arrived we did not have work to do the first night so we decided to check out the site of New Orleans parish (not a church, it's like a borough here go figure). We went to the French quarter which is a different world than most of what surrounds it. The buildings were antique and colorful. The art and shopping were intriguing. And the streets were hoppin with music and "lively" people. New Orleans on a Sunday still brings out a rowdy crowd. Later, we met up with a Melissa, a very friendly and knowledgable alumni who has been working with the St. Bernard's project. We went to a really sweet dive bar that is known for its po'boy. I felt adventurous and got alligator po'boy, I highly recommend it. To me, she was the most helpful in getting a true perspective on Katrina. It is amazing how much the media does not explain to other people in the country. Levees were not the only cause and problem during Katrina. There were problems with the wetlands and other engineered waterways. As a result five years later the health system is poor, schools are still shut down and people are still trying to get deeds to their homes that were passed down to them by family. The best way I can describe New Orleans from the first day is two cities. One is the mask that everyone else in America now sees. After five years I think that many people think New Orleans is back to the Marti Gras town that you see on televesion. The French Quarter was like that. The other city looks a little similar to a third world country. Houses are boarded up or non-existant, you can even see water marks on buildings that endured the storm. Regardless, what seems to connect these cities is the spirit and hope in the people that live here. Jazz, cajun and everything that "makes" this city is still here, hopefully in time all its inhabitants will be able to return.

Now, let's get to the work. Today, Monday, we woke up early, got oriented at the St. Bernards project and went to our site (which is surprisingly close to Camp Hope).  The house is 3 bedrooms, which is pretty large for a New Orleans house. When we got there, the house seemed pretty finished on the outside. We met Steve, a friendly Americore volunteer and Aaron, a rep from the St. Bernard project. We also met Scott, a tall (6'10''!) architect from DC doing some service for his career. Most of the day we worked out getting the outside fixed up as well as finishing painting the walls and trim of the house. I mostly worked on the trim and cleaning doors in the house. This job sounds easy but was actually pretty tedious. The work was good though and I feel really great about pitching in. New Orleans really needs all the help they can get. Many locals here are afraid of being the "forgotten city". Although there are so many other problems in the world and the media has far moved on from NOLA (except recently with the oil spill), this city still needs money, volunteers and solid work done. It is fantastic though to see so much effort and so many volunteers here with a great attitude and goal.

Overall, it feels great to be here. I am having an awesome time and it feels great to get out of my natural habitat. Plus, being the only guy I get some alone time at night which is kind of great after living in an apartment with eight other 'dudes' all year. Tonight we are going to preservation hall to go see some good old fashion jazz. You will probably hear more about that tomorrow.

Mike Altman


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