3.5 hours + 4 drive-by thank-you's + 16 cockroaches + 1 concept of tikkun olam - way too X's on doors = Rewarding service project with Beacon of Hope in the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans. The X's on people's doors marked the number of people who were living in the houses.
For the actual service work, we were working on removing all of the excess growth that has covered the lots where houses used to be, in order to raise the property value of that land and of the houses around it. I loved working in such a community, especially with the Jewish community I was with, because everyone seemed to keep a positive attitude despite the dirty and physically-taxing labor, and many said they would come back in a heartbeat to continue helping.
I was involved in removing a pile of rubble and debris from over a storm drain because it was blocking up the water in the street, but once we finally uncovered the drain and the water began flowing, it kept piling up more and more mud and disgustingness that we had to keep clearing it out so, proud as we were of our work, we did not solve the problem. This can be used as an analogy for the work in New Orleans in general. Volunteers and community members work incredibly hard only to have something else come along that makes that work obsolete?
I found it interesting that when asked to sit, the volunteers were very hesitant to even sit down in the grass on the property. So they did not even want to sit their butts on the floor where other people have to live.
We were also able to speak to a man who lives in the Lower Ninth Ward and was there during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He mentioned some very interesting facts:
1) The entire neighborhood was completely underwater after the levees broke and his house was completely destroyed.
2) He has 7 kids to support.
3) The neighborhood survived the storm. The levees broke 2 hours after the storm ended.
4) Money from the Federal Emergency Management Association did not arrive until three years after the storm (yes, years).
5) He could not go back to his house area until 3 months after the storm ended because the water was so high.
Roger hopes that the government learned a lesson about emergency response, and he also kept urging us to come back since, contrary to what the media sometimes proposes, there are mostly tourist groups that go through there, not so much volunteering.
As a school bus drove by, the children leaned out the windows and yelled, "Thank you!" to us. It was so incredible.
I know what we did made a difference, however small in the grand scheme of things. I saw the intense overgrowth of weeds, trees and bushes before we began. Afterwards, it was, for the most part, clear. If a few hours could do that, what could a week do? A month? I encourage people to find out. I plan to.
Samantha Tropper is a student at Duke University.