When I signed up for the New Orleans service learning trip this J-term, I did not expect the trip to go as it did. I signed up for two primary reasons, one being the work. When I heard we as a class were going to tear down houses or "gut" the houses down to their two by fours and beams, it made me eager to sign up. I have done and do this work every summer for my father, who owns a construction company, and I have enjoyed the work, and I knew I would have a good time. The other reason as to why I signed up for this trip was that it was a horrible disaster and it was truly a once and a lifetime opportunity to go down to Louisiana and help the victims of Hurricane Katrina and Rita. But as I soon learned it would be much more then just tearing down houses.
When I arrived at the first job site in New Orleans we were working on a couples home who had been living in that house for twenty eight years. As I started to go inside and look around as to what I had to do, I saw that every room had some sort of possessions in it, whether it is a bed, bookcase, television set, etc. As I started carrying out molded books, blankets, mattresses, and putting them on the street it hit me that, it was not only a trash pile of molded clothes and ruined pictures, but countless memories. We were dumping out on the side of the street, many memories they had in that house, or their lives together in New Orleans, and if they did not have copies of a lot of the stuff, the only wedding picture they had, or graduation picture from college, or their college degree. I was not tearing down houses, but people's homes, many times the only home they have ever bought and lived in.
For the most part all the homeowners who we had worked for were in the same situation. They are living with a relative or some where in the state and come in to New Orleans during the day to work. Many of the homeowners had lost a good majority of all their possessions, and were living really with not much, because they had lost it all. Each house was the same except for the water level varied a foot or so. Each wall was completely infested with mold, almost every ceiling needed to come down, the smell in the room were at times unbearable, and there was still water in the homes. Besides the destruction in these wonderful people's homes, there was one thing that I found remarkable about all these people. They seemed and I believed they were just as happy as we were, in the midst of destruction. These people did not value possessions highly enough to let the pile of ruined clothes and TV's get them upset. What these people said when they talked about how they basically lost their house, with a smile on their face was "It was part of God's plan, and we're not going to question it" or "everything happens for a reason, maybe I have something better in store" or "at least we have each other". Material possessions did not stop these people from moving forward in their lives, they hit a speed bump, but they're going to keep on moving.
During the two weeks down in New Orleans we had done amazing work. We had worked essentially nine days of work because we lost about two half a days due to the rain. As a group of twenty nine students and three professors we worked on eighteen houses, but gutted fifteen homes completely down to the two by fours and beams. We could not finish the other three because one of the workers fell through the floor and the others we just too dangerous to finish. Besides finishing fifteen houses (which is really a houses for every two people), we saved the city of New Orleans $42, 000, and removed 150 tons of trash from the houses for the two week period. This is 5 tons of debris per person. And besides us swinging away with our hammers and laughing and having a good time with each other tearing down nasty sheetrock, we were fixing these peoples lives and making a world of difference.
So, thinking back on the trip and if I was asked the question, was this trip worth it, or was it what you expected? My answer would be no. I did not expect to grow as close with the group of people I worked with or the professors who taught us in this class or the homeowners, and yes, the bus driver. I did not expect that it would make me sad to leave mold infested homes that smelt terrible, or sleeping in the church in my sleeping bag, or taking cold showers everyday. I knew what the work would be like, because I do it every year, and I knew that it probably wouldn't be the best working conditions, but I didn't know that I would grow as close to the people I worked for and with. This trip has been a great experience for me, and if I did have the opportunity to do it again, I would. With the same cold showers, same working conditions, sleeping on the floor and the same long twenty hour bus ride one way. I will miss the people I worked for and I will always remember my sophomore J-term trip to New Orleans. Thank you professors and whoever else was responsible for putting this trip together.