Thursday, March 31, 2011

Katrina Voices Retold

There exists no word that single-handedly describes the sights we have seen, the stories we have heard and most of all the people we have met. Hurricane Katrina was a devastation that claimed the lives and houses of many of the citizens in the Ninth Ward. The trip started off with cleaning up previously owned and presently destroyed property in the Ninth Ward. Although once the location of a house, this land presently looks like a deserted and trashed field. Our first discovery was a dog skeleton covered by dirt and weeds. Next, we found a picture of a young girl that was ripped and hidden under a tree. Even almost 6 years later, the land was still covered in shells from the flooding and looked as though it had not been touched. As we walked further, we uncovered scattered dolls, teddy bears, baby’s shoes, bandanas, cooking spray, food, and shattered plates. These discoveries triggered the reality of the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina

Throughout the week, we worked on a home for Elaine Butler, elderly woman with health problems. Elaine’s life before the storm was beautiful and pleasant, yet Hurricane Katrina ripped this apart when her beloved home was ravaged by more than twenty feet of water taking with it her brothers, her home, and all of her belongings. Elaine evacuated to Atlanta when Katrina hit but her two brothers decided to wait out the storm and were unable to survive. Her younger brother drowned and was found down a block from her house. Her older brother went to the Convention Center and supposedly drowned there, yet this seems conspicuous to Elaine because the Convention Center had no water. Elaine lived in her residence with her brothers which brought them closer. She could not bring herself to return to New Orleans for almost three years. Eventually, Elaine followed her family back to St. Bernard because it holds the roots, history and memories of her family. Unfortunately, Elaine’s journey back to New Orleans didn’t go smoothly. When she applied for the Road Home Program to receive money to rebuild, she was turned down after someone else claimed the address of the house that she legally owned. For years Elaine has been forced to wander around ever since her return to New Orleans. She has lived in a trailer in a parking lot and then was quickly forced out. She was then placed in an apartment that is difficult for her to get upstairs to bed or to shower due to her numerous health problems. She suffers from arthritis, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and two knees which have both been operated on causing her to not be able to walk upstairs. These health problems prevent Elaine from working and Social Security and Disability income don’t provide her with enough money to create a livable home. She credits us, the volunteers, for saving her life.

The most amazing part of the trip was hearing the personal stories, the people that make up this amazing city. We had the pleasure of hearing James’ story, a worker at the Annunciation Church. Listening first hand to someone who had lived through the horror of the hurricane and now still lives in New Orleans with a smile on his face everyday was truly incredible. He lost five of his seven best friends from thirteen feet of flooding in his house. He went out to rescue survivors and tried to save babies floating in the water. The stories that he told sounded more like horror movies than reality, but this was his living reality. He explained that we, the volunteers, keep him going and alive. Everyday, he comes to work with a smile on his face because of us. He waits up for volunteer groups to come home because he knows that we bring not only physical help to New Orleans, but we represent hope. His words brought tears to our eyes and he really brought us to understand the meaning of this trip. We are here to do more than just build houses, we are here to rebuild lives. This experience has been unforgettable and we hope to return here in the future to continue rebuilding lives.

--Sarah and Aliza

Today was the most memorable experience of my life. Although we only met a simple and down to earth woman, she changed my outlook on life drastically. While Elizabeth wasn’t directly affected by Hurricane Katrina she was in fact affected by the crime and poverty that came due to the harsh flooding. Elizabeth openly shared her tragic life story with us. Just a few years ago, her 18 year old daughter was shot and murdered and she was shot in the face. Worst of all, her husband was the murderer. She came to Saint Bernard Project for mental help. Even though she was in this horrible slump in her life, she described that “they held her hand until she was back on her feet and in a stable position.” Volunteers were sent to help her physically rebuild her home but they also had an effect on her mental well being. Not only was she so open about her experiences, but she was the most welcoming, cheery, and outgoing woman I have ever met. She brought southern hospitality to another level. She invited us into her home and showed us pictures and memories of her beloved daughter. She spoke of the volunteers she’d met so highly, as if they were truly her closest family. She told us a short story about how this one volunteer worked for two straight days repairing the bullet whole in the wall. This volunteer has and will stay in her heart for the rest of her life because every morning she walks by and touches the place where the bullet pierced the wall. This just showed me how amazing and important our actions are. We bring hope and life to these people. We brighten their souls and keep them living. The most amazing thing about Elizabeth was her personality. Despite this horrific experience, she was able to bounce back and be the most joyful person. She appreciates everything in life and couldn’t stop exclaiming her love for us. I will never forget her story and her inspiring words. She is my hero.


How a Katrina Victim Gives Back

Today while we were working on installing a window frame at Mary Lang’s house, we were called into the main entrance for a short meeting. We soon met a man named Thomas. Thomas was there to thank us for the volunteer work we have been doing. He is a resident of New Orleans and his house was the 60th house to be rebuilt under the St. Bernard Project. This showed us what an impact the St. Bernard Project has on people’s lives considering they are now on over their 350th house and this man was still going around thanking people for their work. He told us that even though New Orleans has changed, he is still able to call it his home and it is because of the work that volunteers like us do. This really made us think about how we are not simply just building a house and trying to make it look nice for the person that is going to move in. We are creating a home and a neighborhood where families can be reunited and feel comfortable under one roof even after having such destruction and disaster in their lives. These houses are also here to rebuild generations of families to come in the future.

-Hannah and Danielle

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Day of Stories

“Y’all are the ones that keep me going. Without volunteers like you, I don’t know what would have happened to me. Thank you for saving my life.”

-James, from the Annunciation Mission

Tuesday was a day filled with intense stories and hard work. Over the next couple of days you will hear about some of the stories: a stranger offering to buy snacks for the group as a thank you; two high school seniors talk about why they decided to do their senior internship in New Orleans; personal accounts of people who both evacuated and remained during Katrina. Feel free to leave a comment.

When I woke up, I was skeptical about going back to work. I wasn’t physically ready nor did I mentally prepare myself for a full-day’s work. After a forty-five minute car ride to our site, I was more awake only until I had to spackle again- I would do anything to try to avoid putting mud on the ceiling (although the main reason was because of my height). Finally it was lunch! I couldn’t wait to get to the store to buy my (kosher) mac and cheese. After our lunch and our daily trip to Winn Dixie, I was excited to get back to work. I decided that the only way to get myself to work was to enter my own little world and jam out to music on my iPod. I ended up working in the bathroom for three hours by myself. I sanded all of the walls and I spackled the closet and the windowsill. Before I realized it, it was almost time to clean up for the day. Now that I look back at the day, I am very proud of all the work that was completed. Even though preparing the walls for paint is not very exciting, we’ve come to realize the work that all of us have been doing down here with the St. Bernard Project is highly rewarding and necessary. This is work that needs to get done and will bring the homeowner one step closer to coming home.

Later that night, everything became more real for me. As I was hanging out with the other people on the trip, multiple people were coming upstairs to tell us that one of the guys who works at the church, James, was sharing his personal experience about living through Hurricane Katrina. When I went downstairs, I was surprised to see 40 people sitting in a circle and listening to his story silently. I was so moved by his story. He told us all of the details ranging from: when the storm first hit he used air mattresses as a raft to rescue people to the terrors he witnessed in the Superdome to his experiences living in Alabama to his eventual reconnection with his daughter(3 months later) and his mother(1 year later) to the daily mental battles inside his head and to the heart warming generosity of strangers- so generous that when he returned to New Orleans with a sign on his car, people stopped him to give him money. He then ended his story with a “thank you”. After listening to his story, I now know that we are not only just rebuilding New Orleans. We are rebuilding people’s lives. Every little thing counts. I am glad to be a part of this incredible trip.


Monday, March 28, 2011

The Quality of Work

“Don’t do the work as if it is for you or your parents. When we do work for ourselves we are more likely to cut corners or live without perfection. Instead, work as if it is your grandparents’ house. You would want your grandparents’ house to be done perfectly.”

-Dan, Co-Founder St. Bernard Project

Today we began our first full day of volunteer work, rebuilding homes in St. Bernard’s Parish. St. Bernard’s Parish was severely affected by the breached levee, resulting in many displaced families and 100% of the homes were uninhabitable after the flooding- some areas were under as much as 22ft of water. Our group of six Gann students worked on the home of a family who recently lost one son, and the father and second son are bedridden with illness. This leaves the mother as the primary caregiver and breadwinner of the family. Clearly there is a problem and we are doing our best to help this family out by giving the women a healthy place to rehabilitate her family. Our task was to “mud” the walls, which in the Northeast is known as spackling. We put plaster over the cracks in the drywall in order to have the walls appear smooth and seamless. In order to make the house look professionally done, we needed to pay attention to all the small details and make sure we gave it our all when doing construction. We realized that every small detail counts, and that it is extremely important to make the house look professional.

Next door to the house we were working on was an abandoned one story house. Complete with boarded windows and obvious water damage, the house made a couple members of our team realize how much work really needed to be done, and how many houses still hadn’t been touched 5 ½ years later. The neighborhood of the house we were working on was comprised of approximately half abandoned and damaged homes, while the other half were inhabited. Throughout the work day, there was a scarce amount of people. However, as we began cleaning up, the neighborhood began to fill up with people as kids got off their school buses and residents came back from work. At one point, a few of us were sitting outside and suddenly heard a trumpet. However, we were unsure of where it was coming from. Shortly after hearing the music, we looked up to see a group of teenagers walking down the street with one of them playing the trumpet like a young Louis Armstrong. It was a striking image because it was so out of the ordinary and the boy seemed so comfortable playing it through the streets. It gave the neighborhood a homey feel and really showed that the people living in that area were optimistic and clearly are enjoying themselves despite being in such a trauma stricken place. This day was very powerful, and we truly got a chance to help out and make a difference. We also got a firsthand view of the types of houses that were affected. We look forward to finishing our “mudding” and hopefully beginning to prime and paint the walls!

-Sloane & Matt

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Day 3

Today marked the first day of physical labor. Starting at 12, we worked with a volunteer group, to clean up an area in the Lower Ninth Ward, a place that was especially hurt by Hurricane Katrina. Nothing but the concrete foundations were left in many of the houses in this area. We got to see first hand what people had lost. Although many of the objects we picked up were just trash, we also came across many meaningful items such as dolls, pictures, and baby shoes.

It only took a few minutes after our arrival at the worksite for a man from the neighborhood to pull up and talk to us. He thanked us and told us how important and meaningful our help was to him. After reflecting about his kind words I noticed the impact of our work. Aside from trash we were also told to pick up any rocks that we saw so that they could be used to decorate the garden we were cleaning around. After 4 hours of hard work a massive pile of rocks had been formed next to the garden. At that moment I couldn’t imagine how the volunteer group would ever be able to use all of what we collected to decorate the small garden. Later on though, I noticed that it didn’t really matter whether or not the rocks would be used. What mattered most was that our effort showed the community that people still cared about them and are there to support them, even 6 years after their devastation.


Seeing as this was the first physical work that we would be doing, we were all eager to get started. We found out that this particular day we would only be working in a garden and not actually doing any building, at first, some of our enthusiasm was drained because, to many, this didn’t seem like it would be something as fulfilling and helpful as building a home for someone. However, after we learned a little from one of the LowerNine volunteers about the impact that a community garden would have on this neighborhood and actually saw with our own eyes the physical state that the community was in, our perspectives began to change. We started to understand how deeply a part of their society the concept of a local community was to the people, and once the hurricane hit, it created a lot of strain and struggle to keep these communities intact. Because the flooding left these people with little, creating (or even beginning to create) a communal aesthetic area for the people to enjoy began to seem almost as meaningful as building an actual home, especially since it would be aiding an entire neighborhood as apposed to just a family.

Another thing we learned was how much local produce and eating fresh means to the people of New Orleans. As I was hosing freshly planted dirt mounds of corn, the man who was working with us explained to me that in about two months, these mounds would become a harvestable crop. As he told me this, I realized that besides the aesthetic value that this garden would contain, it too would be a fresh source of food for the community to enjoy. Though I knew I was just doing a small piece of a much larger project, I really had a deep, yet unexpected sense of fulfillment.


Friday, March 25, 2011

2011-Year 5

We’re back! A year has passed and Gann is once again in New Orleans on a service trip. This year we are once again teaming up with and St. Bernard Project. After meeting at the airport bright and early today, we had an easy travel experience with JetBlue and Enterprise. And what do you know, Danny Ainge, of the Boston Celtics, was there “waiting to greet us”. Ainge was nice enough to take a group picture!
We loaded up the vans and headed out to learn a little more about the city. The group took a short driving tour of the area and was able to see the how the storm affected different areas. We ended in the lower ninth ward where we were able to see just how devastating the flooding was in this area. It is hard to envision though. Where there once was a house is now an empty lot of grass with a rectangular concrete base.

What once was neighborhoods filled with houses now looks like a housing development just getting started- a housing development though that does not build at anywhere near the pace that we are used to seeing in the New England suburbs.

We also got to spend some time at the levees of the industrial canal that burst open destroying the area. We will have an opportunity to learn more about the levees later in the week.

Now it is time to transition into Shabbat. We are excited to spend the weekend with Shir Chadash. They are a beautiful community and have opened their doors to volunteers. While we won’t stay at their synagogue the entire week, the work that they are doing has made it easier for Jewish organizations to volunteer in the area.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, March 24, 2011


It's Wednesday night; we are leaving on Friday for New Orleans. Today we had our last meeting at school, where we talked about what to pack, what to wear, where we're staying, where we're going, and even what we're eating. And then we got yet another form to fill out...for this one we even need witnesses!

I am amazed and thrilled at how our fundraising efforts turned out; as a group of 21 people we set out to raise $2000 to donate to St. Bernard Project -- and with money still trickling in we've raised nearly double that amount ($3,900 and counting) for the organization we'll be spending most of our time helping people get back in their homes. It was hard to "get going" on the fundraising piece, but once things kicked into gear we had students going door-to-door, writing letters, sending emails, calling friends and family, and donating items to our online auction. We also had a very successful Dress Down Day, which gave the entire Gann community a chance to help out. Like many people, I've been watching the news a lot recently, following what's happening in the aftermath of the tsunami and earthquake in Japan. So many people from around the world are sending money and other forms of support to Japan right now -- and I can't stop thinking about New Orleans. I feel like a lot of people have "moved on" from Hurricane Katrina, while residents of the City of New Orleans certainly have not. They can not. And while I've participated in a variety of community service projects and fundraising drives to help humankind around the world, I am so glad to be a part of this particular trip that will help my fellow Americans.

Last night, I had a conversation with my friend's 13-year-old daughter. I told her that I didn't know if I had a lot of ability to help build a house. She said, "Well, don't you know how to use a hammer?!" I laughed and realized that she had (excuse the pun) hit the nail on the head: We are traveling as a group of people with various abilities, strengths, and talents -- but together we'll use the tools we have to help repair one little corner of the world. NOLA, here we come!

Ms. Geller

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Support St. Bernard Project

Help us Help Them:
Student Run Auction to Support the St. Bernard Project

Check out our 4 great auction items:
Auctions end at 1pm on March 17th
Auction extended due to new item

NEW ITEM FOR BID!!!!! Red Sox-Yankees Tickets!!

Click here to make a donation

Thank you for supporting the St. Bernard Project. A group of Gann Academy students and faculty members are traveling to New Orleans in late March to build and re-build homes of families who are still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina. We're hosting an online auction to raise money for the organization we'll be working with, the St. Bernard Project, which as already built 352 homes with 31,000 volunteers.

2011 marks the fifth service trip Gann has taken to New Orleans. With thousands of residents still displaced, our group is dedicate to raising money to help bring these residents closer to returning home. Please bid on the items below, and/or consider pledging a donation to support the St. Bernard Project's efforts. Please note that all the money raised will go directly to this organization.

Thank You

Monday, February 14, 2011

St. Bernard Project Costs to Rebuild

This is how donations can help:

$40 Funds a session at CWMH
$100 Buys 2 cordless drills
$250 buys a bathtub
$500 buys flooring for 2 rooms
$1000 buys a week's worth of sessions at CWMH
$5000 buys a used pickup truck to transport materials
$15000 building materials for one house

Make a pledge or participate in our online auction!

Friday, February 11, 2011

NOLA 2011

Gann Academy students are once again heading down to New Orleans in March. For the fifth year, students and faculty will volunteer in the New Orleans community to help rebuild homes and learn about the continuing problems faced by residents affected by Hurricane Katrina.

This year's group will once again work with the St. Bernard Project during their trip. Right now the group is working on fundraising ideas. Stay tuned for ways you can help bring residents closer to returning to their homes!