Friday, March 26, 2010

Final Thoughts

As I sat in the car driving home from Logan Airport, I began to process all the powerful experiences that I had been part of. First, I asked myself how it would feel to come to the place where I live and not have a home. When you walk down a street near the convent in which we worked, you see massive devastation. You see total emptiness, an empty school, an empty playground, and empty homes. However, when you look more carefully, you notice the beauty of the neighborhood. As the day goes on more and more people are walking in and out of the church, more and more people are sitting on their porches, and in the middle of all of it, you hear hammering and music. There is absolutely no way you can describe the emotions that I was feeling.

Yesterday, our group worked on finishing the demolition of the convent. A few of us finished removing the tile from the first floor while others helped in various demolition work. As a whole, you could see the teamwork and determination throughout the workday. A new group joined us as our numbers increased to over fifty volunteers. During some parts of the day, some people felt overwhelmed. Nonetheless, at lunch, Bridget, our site coordinator, requested that we played a name game. Every single Gann volunteer wanted to continue working. The hardworking mentality really helped us concentrate and focus on our work and we were able to accomplish all goals that we set on ourselves.

At reflecting time, something hit me. It was the last night I would spend in NOLA and I did not want to leave. I think that I can speak for everybody when I say that nobody wanted to leave. We all wanted to stay and do all we could to help fix the devastation. When Mr. Neudel asked the group what was one thing that everybody learned, I thought extremely hard. After hearing the various answers to this, something came to mind. Ms. Reimer mentioned during lunch earlier in the day that by building this community we were building a whole society. Therefore, I thought to myself that what we did this past week was not rebuilding. Rebuilding only applies to tangible items. However, through this community center we were not only rebuilding the actual structure, but also recharging the society and sense of community that was lost with the storm.

-Zach S.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Reflecting on Our Trip

I have always looked forward to Exploration week because I knew I would go on a trip that included flying somewhere. It first started with the Civil Rights Journey/Rock and Roll trip. Then I was a junior and I knew I wanted to go to New Orleans to help rebuild. The first flight of the New Orleans trip was to Chicago. I couldn’t wait for the second flight to New Orleans (it was longer). After my week of hard work, I was dreading the flight home. For me, that was an odd feeling because I did not want to leave. Now it is senior year and once again I was accepted to New Orleans. This year was different. I couldn’t wait for the trip, not because of the flying, but because I wanted to help as soon as I possibly could. As I sit here on Tuesday, having one more day of working left, once again I am dreading the flight home. This time, being here is more special than last year was. I was more willing to do anything that the organizations needed me to do.
We arrived in New Orleans Thursday evening. Wake up the next morning was at 6:15 and I can tell you now that everyone cringed as Mr. Neudel said that. The group was going to start to work for the project. The Lower Ninth Ward was one of the worst places hit by Katrina. To shorten the intro to the meaningful story I have is, we worked for a half day on Friday, then had Shabbos at my former Ramah Assistant Director’s Temple. Chatted it up there then came back to hostile. On Sunday, Yael, Molly, and I were assigned to paint part of a house. As we were painting, a little boy about five year’s old, name Dwayne was riding a bike. Before he came, I took off my hat so it would be easier for me to paint. As Dwayne comes along, he notices my hat. I turn my back for a second and I notice that it wasn’t where I put it down, that’s because Dwayne had taken it (he liked the colors). I asked him if he had a hat like that, his response to it was, “I don’t have a hat.” If you know me, you know that I love hats, more than anyone. Hearing that just broke me down inside. A little boy like him deserves a hat. After a moment of thinking, I decided to ask Dwayne if he wanted my hat. He couldn’t believe it! I gave him the hat and watched him ride off to the birthday party he was going to. A boy like Dwayne doesn’t even have his own hat, something that most little boys have. He needed that hat. As the end of the trip is here and as my life goes on, I know that Dwayne will always have that hat, and I will remember him for the rest of my life. I promised myself that I would come down to New Orleans again, but with some gifts to give out: some hats and also some bikes. Dwayne was riding a bike that was not his. Dwayne will be my motivation to do all that I can to help the city of New Orleans.

-Mike H.

Before I came down to New Orleans I don’t think I fully realized the extent of the damage Hurricane Katrina caused here. Sure, you see the pictures, but until you really put the faces to the place, it doesn’t seem real. You see the water above people’s roofs, but you think “oh, it will go down and everything will go back to normal.” That couldn’t be further from the truth. It is five years later, and you still drive past plots upon plots of empty land, on some of which you can still see the concrete slabs where houses, and more importantly people, used to reside. We have been working for the past couple of days on cleaning out a convent in order to turn it into a community center, and while doing so we have been doing everything from bagging clothes and books to ripping up tile to using sledge hammers to knock down walls. On the first morning, Monday, I was working in the dumpster with a couple of other kids trying to pack everything in as tightly as possible. While we were doing this, we came across bags of old clothes and files with students’ names on them. It really set in on me then that these were people’s lives we were throwing away. Imagine not having your favorite childhood blanket or stuffed animal or even something as simple as a book that you used to read all the time. We might just look at it as just another step in the demolition process, but the people who had used this building we were working on before the storm viewed it as a place they could feel safe; a place to call a home away from home. We were throwing away people’s lives. Now the building is way emptier than it was when we got there Monday morning, which I guess is a good thing because it means we are one day closer to rebuilding and giving the people of this neighborhood a place to create new memories, but it is also one more step away from the lives they used to have here. This is a city which is still much in need of our help, not somewhere to be forgotten because it is not the most recent disaster. Every time someone drives by and either waves or honks you can see that they really appreciate that people are here to help, but it’s not even about that. I didn’t come down here to be thanked; I came to try to help those who aren’t necessarily as fortunate as myself and to let them know that people still care.

-Hillary D.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Working with St Bernard Project

Today we began our work with the St. Bernard Project. The 21 (18 kids, 3 teachers) of us split into 2 groups: one had Mr. Neudel and 7 kids who sanded and spackled the interior of the home (Site A) while the other group, featuring Brian Infante and Ziva Reimer with 11 members of the Gann Workforce, went to a home to clear debris left from the flood (Site B).

Site A

Our site supervisor, Julia, was a woman who is on her second tour with St Bernard Project, this time for nearly 10 months. Julia gave very detailed demonstrations for us to learn the skills necessary to fulfill the appropriate tasks. As she taught us what to do, she expressed her need for perfection in everything we do. It was truly shocking how deeply this woman wanted perfection even though she will be disconnected from the end result. She really wanted us to build this home as if it were our own. After all, why should the hurricane Katrina victims get anything less?
Right next to the home we worked in was a concrete slab that was once the foundation of a home standing before the effects of Hurricane Katrina. During our lunch break, the entire group sat on this slab to eat our food. We talked, we laughed, and we ate on the only remains of the home. There was something odd about us having such a great time on foundation that a family lived in just 5 years ago.
In the middle of our working on site, a representative of the homeowners stopped by. In the 10 minutes that he was on site, we learned his story and how he managed to survive the flooding. But what really meant a lot to me was his gratitude. He continuously thanked us from the minute he walked through the door. His expression of thanks was so powerful. It really showed that the work that we are doing is really needed and any work that is done is greatly appreciated.

Ben K. and the Flooring Team

Site B

The rest of the Gann volunteers travelled across the Industrial Canal to the Upper Ninth Ward to work on the demolition of what was once a convent and a community center, behind (and run by) the Archdiocese of New Orleans, and the St. Mary of the Angels Church. This was the first day that anyone worked on the building, and the group arrived to what seemed like the impossible task of clearing the entire building of all debris, trash, old toys, and other destroyed objects that at one time enriched the lives of the youth of Orleans Parish. In conjunction with a group from Middlebury College of Vermont, the site supervisors, and a community member named Agila, the Gann students cleared the entire building of the vast majority of trash and other obstructions in close to two hours. The students were instructed to set aside all copper and aluminum waste so that Agila could sell it to pay for the dumpster.
After clearing the trash from the first floor, some students got to work on the demolition part of the job. While Brian I. and some students got some exercise carrying computers and whatnot downstairs to the dumpster, Jon S. quickly discovered his affinity for smashing doorframes and other structural framework with an ax (until he broke that and switched to a sledge hammer). Aaron G. spent much time on a ladder taking out electrical wiring and metal framing from above. Hilary, Sivan, and Abby spent time talking to Father Joe, the man who runs the church and initiated contact with the St. Bernard Project. Father Joe took good care of the volunteers during the day, bringing candy and energy bars for the workers right when they needed energy the most.
After lunch, Zach, Yael, and Miriam began the task of removing the tile from the first floor. The threesome removed nearly half of the first room’s tile in record time, leaving the rest of the job for day 2.
The crew wrapped up the day with a short reflection with the site supervisors and acknowledging those who had done exceedingly good work during the day, which was nearly the entire Gann group. The kids in the demolition group greatly enjoyed their first day of work and eagerly anticipate a second day of demolishing the former convent.

Jon S. and the Demolition crew.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sunday March 22, 2010

Today we returned to the Lower Ninth Ward. During the day, people worked on landscaping, gardening, reframing, and painting. We heard the stories of some of the homeowners and their experiences during and after Katrina. We met one person who moved back after Katrina and has helped rebuild her sister’s and mother’s house. Another began volunteering in the garden after returning and later took it over. And another person we learned has spent his time rebuilding other people’s homes and has not rebuilt his own.

For the third year, a family friend of a Gann student (now alum) brought us into their home to feed us and give us a different perspective on the storm. This year we had the opportunity to learn from a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter from the Times-Picayune about the environmental impacts of Katrina and how the changing landscape affects the area.

It has become obvious that everyone is grappling with the issues that are unfolding in front of them. We are learning that nothing is as simple as it seems. We are looking forward to working with St. Bernard Project tomorrow.

Shabbat in Metairie

This Shabbat we were lucky enough to be hosted by Shir Chadash in Metairie. A few of our students found some familiar faces from the rabbi to Gann alums that were there for Shabbat. The synagogue showed incredible generosity to us as they allowed us to sleep in its classrooms and provided everyone with an air mattress and sleeping bag. We learned how after most of the congregation was dispersed after Katrina, some members of the community pushed to hold Rosh Hashanah services the October after the storm. What was even more moving was that they were able to fill most of their sanctuary with people from their synagogue and some of the other synagogues. After having a great song session during Seudah Shlishit, the group made a pit stop at Café Dumond to get beignets.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

New Orleans Arrival

After a long day of traveling, the Gann delegation finally arrived at their lodgings in New Orleans. The group had fun in the airport- searching for TVs playing basketball games and playing games.
Tonight while shopping for groceries some of us got to talk to a woman working the cashier that used to live in the area we are working in but still does not have a house again. It was a short glimpse into how life goes on in New Orleans, but when you move past the surface you start to see how much pain people still are feeling.

We are looking forward to our first day of work tomorrow with and then on to Metairie for Shabbat. We will most likely not post again until after Shabbat.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Welcome to the blog for Gann Academy's 2010 service trip to New Orleans. Students on this trip recognized that even 5 years after Hurricane Katrina, there are still people that have not been able to rebuild their homes. We hope that you will enjoy our reflections as we go through the week.