Finally, Friday morning arrives. I waited all summer for this day. Rolling out of bed my body tingles with the exhilaration of the unknown I would experience over the next ten days. My bags had been packed long ago. Mom checked things more than a hundred times. Come on, I’m sixteen. I’m ready to go on my own. Well, not quite on my own. Today I leave for New Orleans with twelve other kids and three chaperones to help with recovery efforts still needed from the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Our destination is the Ninth Ward, one of the poorest parts of New Orleans and the hardest hit.
Nine o’clock, we have to get moving. The parking lot at church is full of the bustle of excited teens and worried parents. Cameras are clicking everywhere. Suitcases and fifteen people finally get into the vans and we head a whole twenty miles down the road to our first stop. The old brown, brick building of the train station towers over me. My nerves jump to my stomach as we open the doors and get ready to board the train. I have never been on a train before and I am pretty excited. Finally we leave La Crosse for Chicago.
Aching bodies revel in the anticipation of stretching screaming muscles at the Chicago stop. We quickly eat downtown at Gino’s pizza.
We’re on the tracks again. Our destination, New Orleans, is an eighteen-hour trip! The train ride really is a blast. I contemplate the days ahead as I watch the scenery out my window. Whack, a pillow to the face. The fight is on.
At last, we arrive in “Nawlins” and begin our two-mile walk to the hotel. Of course, the girls packed too many bags and I have to carry the heavy ones for them. After an exhausting walk we arrive at the forty story hotel. We get settled in and go off to explore the beautiful French Quarter. We are intrigued by creepy voodoo shops. I imitate one of the mimes in the French Quarter and cause friends to squeal in laughter.
I wake up at six as our service day is upon us. We load onto a charter bus headed for the lower Ninth Ward, the area of mass devastation. I step off the air-conditioned bus and the hot, humid air hits me like my fireplace back home in Minnesota. Our job is to track the number of vacant houses. Most houses are damaged beyond repair. A woman still living on the block expresses her gratitude to us. More than thirty thousand kids have come to volunteer with clean up in New Orleans and she is well aware of that fact without us even mentioning it. Twenty-two of the twenty-seven houses on the block are uninhabited. This troubles me for the rest of the trip especially as we head back to home sweet Hilton.
We do have time later to explore the bustling city. We stroll to CafÃ© Du Monde to eat glorious beignets. We head to the market and then to some of the shops on Decatur Street. We all load up on beads and trinkets for those back home. The sights and brilliant colors of New Orleans will not be forgotten.
Exhausted, but with air of accomplishment, I climb back on the train for home. Rest, gratitude and memories fill my mind as it is lolled by the rhythmic hum of the train. Whack. Another pillow fight is on. There is nothing I would change about this wonderful trip.
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