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New Orleans: The City of Hope

May 14, 2010

At 7:30am on Wednesday, we pile into our van and drive a few minutes away. When we get out of our car, and you can already feel the damp heat descending upon New Orleans, with the sun making its way through the clouds. We climb up a steep slope and sit ourselves on a wooden platform that overlooks what appears to be a wasteland; it is the remains of the once healthy and diverse Logger Bayou, a mix between a swamp and marsh. Unfortunately, due to human-made canals built in the eco-unfriendly 1950s, salt water infiltrated the fresh body of water and virtually destroyed the ecosystem and its inhabitants. The water, once filled with trees and marsh grasses, is now marked with only a few small Cypress trees that appear to be dead anyway. Over the years, Logger Bayou has made its own adaptations, along with the help of environmental activists, in order to slowly work toward becoming a productive area once again. Sister Judy and Lindsey, who work for AmeriCorps, share with us the sad history of Logger Bayou. Its fate is uncertain with the present oil spoil, which may create disastrous consequences for Logger Bayou and the surrounding bodies of water in the area, which are already disappearing at a rate of a football field-sized area every 38 minutes. However, with the inhabitants of Louisiana still recovering from the damage Hurricane Katrina, wetlands like Logger Bayou and its preservation are not exactly the first thing on everyone's mind. It quickly became apparent that, while man may cause damage to the environment and themselves with ease, man cannot always find a way to make repairs with the same effortlessness that was used to create it in the first place. We were overcome with a sad realization on that overlook, knowing that, not only are New Orleans citizens struggling daily, but the environment is struggling as well. Neither are receiving the attention and help that they deserve. Hearing the all of the problems that Louisiana is facing is one of the most humbling events I have ever experienced. Sitting there, I felt almost helpless, unsure of what I could do to help and make life a little better for New Orleans' people and animals alike.

And then as we all got back into our van and drove away from the bayou to go to our work site, I remembered that I WAS helping. All of us volunteers are. Even though we were mostly just scraping, priming and painting the soffit and molding of a house's roof, which may not seem like a large amount of help considering the amount of work that needs to be done, every little bit truly does help. We worked for our usual 8:30am to 4:30pm shift, immediately scurried to the showers after, and got dressed and ready for a fun night out on the town.

We went to "Wednesdays on the Square," which I have officially deemed one of the coolest events I have ever been to in my life. On this grassy square block in the middle of town, there are white tents everywhere, with vendors selling paintings, photographs, t-shirts, hand-made jewelry, coasters, and any other souvenir you could imagine. On the outskirts of the Square, different restaurants from New Orleans each had a tent selling their most famous and award-winning dishes. We consumed all kinds of food, from melt-in-your mouth banana and nutella crepes to spicy southern-style rice dishes to your standard nacho chips and guacamole. After gathering our delicious treats, we made our way over to a huge crowd in front of a stage. A band called "The Dirty Dozen" was playing some upbeat, toe-tapping music that had everyone dancing. We were all in a musical eutopia and thought life could not get any better, but then all of a sudden several of the Saints football players came out on to the stage and get the crowd going with the Saints' cheer "Who Dat?" (meaning, "who dat's gonna beat the Saints?"). As we were chanting the mantra of the Saints and swaying with the locals, I felt a sense of unity surge within me. Before this trip, I had never been to New Orleans, and yet, somehow, I felt like I had been a part of and welcomed by this city by the sea all of my life. New Orleans has a magical quality to it; no matter who you are, or where you from, or what you want to do, New Orleans has something for you to make you feel right at home, and urges all to kick up their feet and relax after a hard day's work. They know that progress requires determination and dedication, but they also recognize that we all should also make the most out of our lives, and that family and friends and having a good time are an essential ingredient to a happy and healthy life.

Our group leader Rita's friend Sarah also joined us for the concert (along with our favorite 6'10 gentle giant Scott, who works with us on our house). After The Dirty Dozen finished their set, Sarah took us to a local restaurant called "Mother's" and we had a fantastic New Orleans-style feast. Sarah works for JJPL, an organization that deals with social justice for juveniles in New Orleans. She works with and for the youths, fighting for better laws that will help all, and also help the troubled ones rehabilitate and one day lead a productive adult life. The stories she had were a sad reminder that, even though we just came from a hoppin' concert in the city where life seemed grand, there is still much work to do, and that no, not everything is alright in this beautiful city.

I feel like the schedule of our day followed the thought process of the New Orleans people. First, you are presented with problematic situations (Logger Bayou and Hurricane Katrina damage, etc.), followed by working long and hard with determination and pride to help ease these problems in any way you can (rebuilding at the site). After a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, you then remember that you only have one life to live, and while, yes, you need to work hard to make the world a better place, you also need to take a breather to keep yourself in check; sometimes you just need to eat some good food and dance around like a fool with your family and friends, all while remembering the work that still needs to be done (going to concerts followed by talks with social justice workers). Making yourself mentally healthy and filled with joy is an integral part of recovering from disasters, because your cheer and enthusiasm will inevitable spill over and start to seep into the minds and hearts of those around you, creating an infectious and steady overflow of hope.

Hope. That is certainly one of the biggest elements of New Orleans and its citizens. I now understand where our temporary home, Camp Hope, gets its name. The people of New Orleans are some of the most resilient I have ever seen or heard of. They love their city, its food, its sights, its sounds, its people, as well as the tourists who just come to visit and take a bit of their vibrant culture with them. There is no doubt in my mind that, even though it has been 5 years since Katrina and there is still an immense amount of work that needs to be done on environmental, local, and social levels, the people of New Orleans will survive. They have been surviving for the past 5 years, and I do not see that changing in the least. Not only will they survive, but they are also starting to thrive once again. As you walk around New Orleans, you can feel its heartbeat; you can feel the pulse of the music, the laughter, the food, and even the tears at times, but the beat is strong. There is a buzz in this city, an electric energy that makes you feel alive just by being here, a sense of fullness and purpose when you breathe in the Louisiana heat, the steady hum of hope. Hope. Hope is what the city of New Orleans has had for the past 5 years, it's what they have now, and it's what they always will have in the future. Hope, with a little bit of soul food and jazz music and joyous laughter thrown in. I am excited to see the upcoming progress that is going to continue to happen here in New Orleans. It was my first trip here, but it definitely won't be my last. All I can think this one question, "Who Dat's gonna bring New Orleans down?"

The answer?

No one.



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