Music, Food, and Love of Voluntourism - My Family Travels

I opened my car door and was overwhelmed with delicious smells and lively music. I was in New Orleans. My friends and I had decided to take a ‘voluntourism’ trip for our spring break. What we got was a dinner and a show, plus so much more. We, 5 girls crammed into one car arrived in New Orleans after traveling from from Wisconsin to New Orleans Louisiana.

The goal was to use our spring break as a way to give back and have fun. We contacted Hands On, a service organization, provides volunteers with the necessary information to contact and reserve volunteer spots with several organizations. We used Hands On to sign up for volunteer opportunities with 4 organizations. We spent time with Green Light New Orleans, ARC of the Greater New Orleans, New Orleans Mission, and the OC Haley neighborhood clean up.

The young ladies, I traveled with were excited to help the Big Easy. What we didn’t realize was that we were falling for this city. We learned we were in good company. We spent our week volunteering. Every new volunteer opportunity brought a new group of people to befriend, and another chapter to learn about the history of New Orleans and the people who call it home.

We split into two groups all going to same organizations through out the week. We exchanged stories about the people we met and the things we had done. We quickly realized the people of New Orleans are as resilient as they are colorful.  The stories told to us were about Hurricane Katrina and the devastation, Jazz funerals, and hope.

My friends were ecstatic to help deliver and install compact fluorescent light bulbs for Green Light New Orleans. It gave them a chance to meet people from all over New Orleans who were committed to change the direction of New Orleans energy use.  Our next volunteer commitment was with ARC of the Greater New Orleans.

ARC of Greater New Orleans is mission is to help people with intellectual disabilities become active members of society and reach fulfillment. Our role was to help sort used Mardi Gras beads (recycle them) into new packages to be used again. We did this side by side with individuals with disabilities. We met men and women with vibrant personalities who told you about their day, their dreams, and everything in between. To this day when I look at Mardi Gras beads, I don’t see the same old beads, I see the faces of the men and women who get those ready to toss ever year.

The crescent city had more to offer us on our journey. The work on Oretha Castle-Haley Boulevard would be the scene for so many people who wanted to change the future of New Orleans fading communities. Oretha Castle-Haley Boulevard or OC Haley Boulevard was a neighborhood who had seen its better days. At first glance it looks run-down and in all honesty scary.

So much so that I almost wouldn’t let my girls get out of the car, I was afraid to leave them in such a place. However, after you spend ten minutes there, you see the hidden gems. The buildings that look ready for the wrecking ball have new materials, tools, and people milling about fixing them.

Groups of people pick trash off the street and gutters. An inviting aroma of food coming from the local Café and homeless shelter kitchen, lingers in the air. A blast of a tuba is heard coming down the street as a local band has a photo shoot in the abandoned broken down corners of streets business area. We roamed up and down the street removing trash, weeding the planter squares in the street, and smiling every time I see a little flower rising through a crack in the cement. We would break at noon for lunch.

We noticed an unassuming restaurant on the block called Café Reconcile. Once we entered we learned the story behind the establishment. Café Reconcile is a restaurant (nonprofit) that help mentor at-risk youth. The patrons told us that some of the best chefs in the French quarter restaurants have trained in this Café. After enjoying the delicious soul food we headed back to our volunteer service.

We weeded the planter openings in the street, noticing the sand and shells (oyster maybe) reminders from a hurricane that changed the city. As the band, panorama jazz band, strolled past us playing a lively tune, I surveyed the scene. Everywhere there is so many people working diligently because they want to see the old neighborhood return to it former glory. Suddenly, the street that seemed so frightening is now the brightest, friendliest block to spend an afternoon.

Our time at New Orleans mission on Oretha Castle-Haley Boulevard was the most memorable. We arrived at a homeless shelter ready to serve meals. As soon as we entered we met a lady by the name Loretta, she was the chef. She had one of those voices you couldn’t ignore and way of making everyone jump into action. At the same time she was the sweetest, warmest person anyone could have the pleasure of meeting.

Upon entering she told everyone that we weren’t just serving mass produced soup. She didn’t let anything leave her kitchen that wasn’t a world class meal. She prided herself on giving them more than just a warm meal for the night. She told us that we were giving them back their dignity. We looked them in their eyes and listened to their story. I met a young woman, younger than me.

She was only nineteen and homeless. She ran away from home, away from violence to live on the street. I sat there listening to her speak about the choice she made to leave. I was mesmerized, she was brave and kind despite everything she gone through. I always thought of myself as a brave person, but to meet someone like her I realized I wasn’t even close to her level. And then to top it off, she thanked me, just for being there. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t done much, but she was thanking me. It made me realize how much in life I took for granted.

She will always be in my mind, no matter where I go. As we went on with our adventures, we learned that a lot of the people involved in the organizations were from other states. They had come to help and fell in love with the city. I was amazed at the power of the city. It had a seductive quality about it. It was the spirit of this city that no one could deny. We enjoyed every moment in ‘N’awlins.’

When we weren’t volunteering we were being tourists. Of course, we went to Bourbon Street, explored the French quarter, had breakfast at Café Du Monde, watched the Natchez leave port, went jazz clubs, browse the market, and eat at the cuisine. Our hotel, the Ambassador Arts District Hotel was walking distance to all the attractions. We were only a block away from Mother’s World’s best baked Ham Restaurant (1938). It was the craziest experience to stand in line that wrapped around the block for a little diner. The food was worth the wait, a debris poboy is my recommendation.

We attended the St. Patrick’s Day parade and got beads, reminding me of the kind hearted individuals who sorted them. We went out to Deanie’s Seafood restaurant to eat fantastic crawfish. It was at this restaurant that we learned to buy one dish per two people because we never needed as much as we were given. This is a good money saver for poor college students.

We would stroll around the French quarter investigating the voodoo shops, observing the apparent competition between the bars and clubs on Bourbon Street to play their music louder than the other, and eating pralines as we decided our next move. Before we left New Orleans, a trip was made to the ninth ward. Remarkably, another parade was happening. We watched the brightly colored feathery costumed participants walking down the road as we headed to our destination.

We came to the Ninth ward and were amazed to see the area still in ruins. It looked like a scene from a war movie. The houses looked as if they were barely holding together. It shook everyone to the core. New Orleans was still in a shape of disrepair. The devastation Katrina had left was still evident. We wandered around the ward observing the quiet and respecting it. We eventually piled back into the car and headed back out.

            We passed the parade now in full swing and I smiled to myself. That is New Orleans. It may get knocked down but the people and the spirit can’t be dampened not even by a hurricane. The faces in the car turned from solemn heartbreak to refreshed hopeful cheer at the sight of the parade.

 “I love this city, I love these people” was uttered from the backseat.

 It is a trip inked on the growing minds of young women taking their place in life.


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