Pulling apart a roof is not as simple as it sounds. As I pried the warped and rotting shingles away from a house damaged by Katrina, I felt a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment that I had never experienced in my life. There I was in the birthplace of jazz, working with Youth Rebuilding New Orleans, reconstructing homes and the community. As I took in the cacophonous sounds of nails and boards, I thought about how I ended up there. I traveled with the National Federation of Temple Youth, an organization that brings teens together from all over the country. Not only was I learning about the South’s rich culture, but I was learning about the culture of each teen I was with.
Thousands lost their homes in Katrina, but thousands more, including myself, have been able to connect and grow through the rebuilding efforts taking place. Youth Rebuilding New Orleans is an organization that builds discounted houses for quality teachers, and I knew my work would not just help one person, but would build the foundation for the education of the city’s youth for the future. While some people donated money, I built houses.
Driving through the narrow and barely paved streets of the Lower 9th Ward, I was amazed to see the extensive debris, warped buildings, and painted X’s from rescue missions that ended over a decade ago. Astounded, it became clear to me that the work was nowhere near complete. Although I knew people must have originally thought that we were just another group of volunteers, I hoped to make it clear that I wanted my experience to mean more.
At first, I didn’t think I would be able to make a difference; partly because of my lack of upper body strength, partly because of my lack of construction knowledge, but especially because of the 98 degree heat coupled with the 100% humidity. However, I refused to let the sweat dripping off my face deter me from accomplishing my goal. Since using a crowbar is not an innate skill, I had to finally ask for help.
When my supervisor held down the crowbar and showed me how to get the boards off, I felt the support of the entire community. I knew I could complete my task, but then came the greatest realization of all — that the man helping me truly embodied what it meant to be humble. He accepted the help of a weak sixteen year old, who could only try to understand what he and his community had been through.
What made my trip last a lifetime were the people I was able to speak to and learn about as I contributed over eighty hours in service. I started a photo project during my two weeks in New Orleans, where I interviewed the people I met to create truly lasting memories and relationships. One of my favorite quotes came from a woman named Warrenneta; “It’s not just a levee that breaks or a hurricane that brings people down. Sometimes people just need to know that you care”. Through this experience, I learned what it truly meant to have a levee break — and I believe the citizens of New Orleans felt how much I cared for them. When I left the work site, I was proud of what I had accomplished and of what I learned about others. And just six months later, I received an email from the organization showing us the complete house we had worked on that summer. This was a life changing experience that I will never forget.
See the rest of my photo project and learn about these amazing stories here! https://www.instagram.com/humans.of.usa
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