Let’s do a little bit of talking about Spring Break. Not the type that involves Cancun or nights of blacking out, but the kind tailored towards service and setting out to do something meaningful for someone else. A service immersion, if you will.
That is the break I had a few weeks ago down in New Orleans, Louisiana. Hillel International has a program where students from all across the county come down to New Orleans during their break week in order to help with rebuilding efforts throughout the city. That is what myself, two other DePaul students, and a total of one hundred and fifty Jewish students from all across the U.S. did during break. We spent the week rebuilding homes, working with non-governmental organizations, listening to speakers from the community, and just helping out in any way we could.
As a reminder, New Orleans is a city that was tragically devastated by Hurricane Katrina back in August 2005 with subsequent flooding throughout the Eastern portion of the city and wind damage almost everywhere. Thousands were displaced from their homes and many more had no homes to return to after the storm.
Almost five years later the city is still recovering, and, as one man, James Perry, told us, “If all the organizations in the city were working at their full capacity, in terms of rebuilding and bringing in volunteers, it would still take 12 – 15 years for the city to get back to where it once was.”
The work was hard, but also intriguing and gratifying. Everywhere we went people greeted us with open arms, thanking us for our time volunteering and remarking that our presence alone gave them hope. People were also willing to share their stories. Just about everyone we talked to had a story of what the atmosphere was like before the storm, the evacuation process, and what it was like coming back afterwards and trying to process the damage to their homes, community centers, and public areas.
Let me say it right here, the people of New Orleans LOVE their city. Our bus driver remarked that he grew up and lived in the lower 9th ward his entire life. The only time he left was right before the storm and immediately came back when the city opened up again. He and his family had suffered damage and his mother lost her home, but, even with that difficulty, he told us he could not imagine living anywhere else. That attitude of civic love and pride radiated in every person I met. They love their city and all of the work being put into it. I was just happy that I could be there to help out for a small time.
That small time was well used, though. In my week of work, my peers and I managed to do mold remediation for a volunteer house, clean-up the bank of a canal, recycle used lumber, wood, windows, and nails; paint and re-install ceiling tile at a veterans center, and build a baseball field that would be used by elementary, middle school, and high school students.
The crazy part though, when we left, it seemed as if we had done very little in fact. Our week’s worth of work had made a small dent in a large pile of work. The city of New Orleans still needs work, volunteers, time, energy, and effort.
That is both the beauty and frustration of service work. For those of us who work for positive change in our communities, we learn that it takes time. The time we spend is small and may seem insignificant, but in the grand scale of all the work being put into a community, it becomes part of something greater. The finished product is an achievement, which we will most likely not see the end of, but we will know we were a part of. Rabbi Tarfon wrote, “You are not required to complete the task, but nor may you neglect it.” (Pirkei Avot)
For once, in the case of New Orleans, I disagree with the Rabbi. I think New Orleans is that opportunity to complete the work. Granted, the city will not be what it once was; it will be something greater. It truly is a place of innovation, energy, and alternatives. It just needs people who are willing to spend some of their time volunteering to help bring about that change.
Interested in doing service work, for New Orleans or otherwise? Check out University Ministry’s Spring Break Service Immersion trips, inquire with a local service group, look into AmeriCorps (www.americorps.gov/nccc), or organize something on your own!
Interfaith Scholar 2009-2011
Published in the April 2010 Issue of the Interfaith Review