Wednesday, March 18, 2009

St. Bernard Project celebrates 200th home

March 18th

Wow. Being in New Orleans for 6 days now, I still cannot comprehend how this city is up and running and how people are actually living here. Before coming down here, I had only heard about the flood. I saw pictures, videos, and heard stories – but once I was actually standing on New Orleans ground, I could really see the devastation. When we first started driving to our hostel, I was in shock. It didn’t even seem like we were in America. You drive down the street and see a few buildings. One is new and looks like it had never been ruined, one is rusty and has a few of those treacherous X’s on it, and one is boarded up and ready to be demolished. It is amazing to me that 3 and a half years after the storm took place some buildings are still in the same state. Sometimes, when we are driving to our next destination, I just look out the window in utter shock. I feel like I am not in a real place – which I am in some sort of simulator that placed me in a city of complete poverty and devastation. Sometimes as I am working in a house, either gutting or mudding walls, I forget where I am and what I am actually doing. I forget that I am rebuilding someone’s house – a person that was affected so greatly by Katrina that they were left with nothing. No money, no house, no nothing. I have listened to the people with these stories, and I have learned so much. I have never heard of or seen such sadness, devastation, and poverty. These people have inspired me to never even think of taking advantage of the life I have.


It’s the last few days of our trip and I cannot believe it is almost over. To me it feels like just yesterday was Friday and we were just arriving here in New Orleans. Being here, helping out and listening to all the stories, I wish I could stay here for longer. Today we were at the 200th house opening of a new house and I just want to be able to work on a house and see the resident all happy that they have a new place to live. Even though I did not work on this house, I just felt happy being part of the volunteer service here in New Orleans. It is sad to be leaving but I am also leaving here happy. Happy because I have done so much work, but sad because I have to stop working. Hopefully in the future I will be able to come down again to do anything that needs to be done.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

An Evening with Anderson Cooper

March 17th

Quote of the Day:

They rebuilt the levees to their pre-Katrina condition. By not making any structural improvements the levees are just as susceptible as they were during hurricane Katrina. The reason is political- the national government does not want to pay for rebuilding them and the state government does not want to pay. So they were just put back up the way they were. –Daniel (One of our Site Supervisors)

Today we continued working with St. Bernard Project. Groups continued with their previous day’s work. Two of the groups went on a levee tour along the Mississippi river and MR GO- Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. The group learned about the canals that were built throughout the city. They learned how MR GO has decreased the amount of wetlands near the city and allow hurricanes to intensify. We also walked along the levees and saw where they broke in the lower ninth ward. Many people in the group were taken aback by the fact that the levees were not rebuilt stronger.

During the evening the group went out to eat dinner at Kosher Cajun. Kosher Cajun is one of two kosher restaurants in the New Orleans area (the other being Casablanca). Kosher Cajun has taken very good care of us all week, catering our dinners, and they are proud of the fact that they return to New Orleans so quickly after the storm.

Finally, as most people know, we had a great opportunity to watch the taping of Anderson Cooper 360. We arrived just in time and got front row position in the audience and got to hold our signs up for the nation to see! Cooper spent five minutes talking to our students before the show, signed autographs for anyone that asked, and took a group photo with us. We left buzzing from the excitement, but we still need to get some rest as we have another full day of work ahead of us.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Working with St. Bernard Project

March 16th

Thought of the Day:

We wear our tzitzit as a reminder of the mitzvot. So the paint on our arms should act as a reminder of the work that needs to be done in New Orleans.

On Monday the group began its work with St. Bernard’s Project. The Project has grown by leaps and bounds since its inception three and half years ago. What began as a 3 person organization has grown into a nationally recognized organization. Today the group was split into 3 work groups. At the rebuilding sites, two of the groups were working on drywall and mudding, and the third group worked on laying flooring.

We also were excited to hear that Anderson Cooper is doing a live taping on Tuesday at one of the St. Bernard Project houses. The group will be attending the taping, so you should listen for our cheers or look for our faces!

Today our group switched from volunteering with Lowernine to working with the Saint Bernard Project. The organization’s founder, Liz McCatney, was named CNN’s hero of the year for her relief efforts, and we had the honor of hearing from her personally. Liz’s orientation was both informative and emotionally poignant. We heard the story of the building we were in and were reminded how the government neglected the city and that we were the ones who needed to rebuild it. The association was very organized in aiding a variety of victims and strategically picking houses that will build up each neighborhood. When we began working, my group did “mudding,” which is filling in the wall’s creases with clay and covering them with paper. The work was concrete and satisfying. The house was farther along than the ones we previously worked with, so it was nice to remember that the houses will eventually be finished and restored to their owners. For the next three days we will be working on the same houses so we will truly be able to see progress, which makes us excited to begin work again tomorrow.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Human Connection

March 15th

Quote of the Day: Every time a grandparent dies a library is lost. ~Colin Phillips (neighbor of the house we were working on)

Today we returned to the Lower Nine organization in the Lower Ninth Ward and continued to work on the same house from Friday. We suited up in our full-body plastic gear and continued to prepare the wood frame for dry-walling. Today that preparation involved removing the remaining nails, scraping the mold off of the wood, and applying a mold-killing solution.

The highlight of the day came when the neighbor, Colin Phillips, came over to thank us for the work we were doing, and then invited us to take oranges from his orange tree. We joined him in his yard for the refreshing snack and as we ate, he shared his gratitude and many words of wisdom. Meeting people like Colin who show so much appreciation make our seemingly monotonous work seem so much more meaningful and worthwhile.

-Ali and Emily

Today the other group worked on a house that is still in the initial stages of the rebuilding process. We were very surprised that after three and half years, this house had not been touched at all until about two months ago. We worked on cleaning out much of the garbage that was left in and around the house. It was a messy and slow moving job, but by the end of the day there was a large pile of wood, scraps, and trash bags on the side walk, ready to be picked up, and the back yard and first floor were clear of rubble.

During our lunch break and towards the end of the day we had the privilege of meeting and spending time with the owner of the house. We listened to him as he told us his life story: he spoke of his passion for photography, his experience during Katrina, and his love for New Orleans. From speaking to him it was clear that he was appreciative of our presence in New Orleans, helping him rebuild his house. He realized that for us, at least initially, coming here was more of an abstract idea, going somewhere to help somebody, and he told us how thankful he was that the “somebody” we ended up helping was him. After hearing his story and putting a face to the person we were helping, we felt much more motivated to push forward with our task, and our sense of accomplishment at the end of the day felt more significant.


As I was walking through the airport, I could tell right as I saw a jazz picture that I was in New Orleans; including the 60 degree weather. With three minivans, three teachers, and a bunch of Gann Academy students, we were ready to take on all the challenges ahead of us. The last three days (even though we worked only two) were amazing. Helping take out and put in a new floor. Even just taking nails out of old wood felt good. We listened to a man speak from one of the houses we were working on and it made me feel so much happier of what I was doing. Another man talked from the bottom of his heart about how happy he was we are helping out. Someone who did not know us and had no relationship with us invited us over to his yard to eat oranges from his orange tree. Even though we have only been here for a few days, we have done so much work. Imagine what work we can do with 5 more days!


Today, as we were working in a house, a neighbor popped his head in through the door and told us how happy he was that we were helping out the New Orleans community. He told us that if we wanted to take a break, that we could come over next door, pick some oranges from his orange tree, and hangout with him. At 2:30, we took a break, and headed on over to his house to have some oranges, and chat with him. He had many things to say, all of them interesting, and all of them inspiring. Looking back, one of his comments really stuck to me. He told us that in life we have a choice: either work hard and play later, or play now and work later. I really thought that what he said was wise, because that is a dilemma that high school students have to go through a lot of the time. Most want to hangout with friends, and relax, but should do work for the future. He had many other pieces of advice and expressed his thankfulness multiple times telling us that the world is full of great people like us and that it’s good to know that there are people who still remember and care for the residents of New Orleans. It was good for me to know, that the people are glad that we are helping them.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Pluralistic Shabbat

Shabbat March 13th and 14th

Quote of the day :

As Jews we don’t count people in the same way, because people shouldn’t be thought of as a number. We need to know their story, see their soul, see the humanity…It’s quality over quanity.—Rabbi Uri, Beth Israel

After a hard work day, we traveled to Metairie to spend Shabbat with the Jewish community. On Friday night, the group had dinner and special program with the Gates of Prayer youth group. Everyone had the choice to daven with either Beth Israel(orthodox shul) or Gates of Prayer(reform shul) on Friday night and Shabbat morning.

Our host family was Rabbi and Mrs. David Posternock, who came to NOLA a little under a year ago. Although Rabbi David wasn’t in NOLA during Hurricane Katrina, he still felt the impact of the disaster on the community. He told us that there was ten feet of water in the shul and that all seven Torahs and 3,000 books had to be buried because they were destroyed. Pre-Katrina, Beth Israel was the largest Orthodox shul in the south, but now they find themselves in an extra room in the reform congregation, Gates of Prayer. The shul features five new Torahs donated from shuls across the country and has limited books for davening and studying.

Despite all of the hardships that the shul has been through, the people create the warmest community that either of us have ever been in. For Seudah Shlishit, we were all welcomed to the house of the head Rabbi, Rabbi Uri. He brought emotion unseen in the Boston community. He truly was overjoyed that Shabbat had come and that we were there to spend it with him. Before saying Birkat Hamazon(Blessings after Meal), we all went around the table to share an emotion or feeling about the day. Not only did our group feel comfortable sharing with Rabbi Uri and the community, but we felt that they truly cared and were listening to what we had to say. We ended the evening with a spiritual havdalah filled with ruach and music. Rabbi Uri led on his guitar, Rabbi David was backing him up on the drums, and everyone else had different instruments. Although Shabbos ended at 8:07, the havdalah service ended at 8:35 because nobody wanted to to stop singing. Although we met only hours ago, the goodbye was hard and we felt a connection to the community. On the way home we stopped at CafĂ© Demonde to get Beignets for the whole group. We completed the evening with a group session where people shared their reflections of Friday’s work and our Shabbat experience.

-Danny and Daniel

Friday, March 13, 2009

Putting a Face to the Pictures

Thought of the Day:

Today while we were working at our resident's house, their neighbors came by to introduce themselves and thank us for coming down. At that moment I went from just pulling nails out of the wood to helping someone take a step closer towards moving back into their home.

March 12th and 13th:

We left Gann at 3pm and finally arrived to the Marquette House at 2am local time. Despite the time, everyone was in high spirits and the energy level was not what you would expect for the time of day.

It was a short night’s rest as the group needed to be to Lowernine’s volunteer center by 8:30am. So with around 5 hours of sleep, the group was up and ready to get to work. Our first day of volunteering took us to New Orlean’s Lower 9th Ward. The area was completely devastated by the flooding and 4 years late only 15%-20% of the residents have moved back into their homes. With many of the residents lacking the necessary funds to buy supplies or pay contractors, it has become the responsibility of long-term volunteers, short term volunteers, and numerous non-profit organizations to help the residents return to their home.

Today’s work had Gann students do demolition, prepare a house for mold remediation, and lay and grout tile. Due to Shabbat it was a short work day, but we are excited to spend Shabbat with the Jewish community in Metairie. We are thankful for the community inviting us into their homes for Shabbat and for putting together a special program with their youth group.

Shabbat Shalom from balmy New Orleans!

Sunday, March 8, 2009


This blog is intended for Gann Academy community members to read about the experiences and reflections of the members of the 2009 Hurricane Katrina Volunteer Delegation.