November 21, 2006

New Orleans

As some of you already know, I'm heading down to New Orleans next month.

Back in March, a group of nearly 70 Knox kids went down to NO to help local residents gut houses. This is important work, because you need a lot of biohazard gear to rip out the toxic-mould-ridden plaster or drywall, not to mention any upholstery or carpeting. Once this is done, handy homeowners have a shot at doing a lot of the rest of the rebuilding themselves. People from around the country have been travelling down there to help, and this was a popular spring break trip among the more community-minded of the college crowd.

At the very moment all those Knox kids were ripping up walls in New Orleans, I (and, briefly, Kathy) were ripping up my kitchen floor for my own little renovation. It turned out very nice, of course, but the comparison was certainly not lost on me: here I was doing minor demolition work to make my house prettier, and there were a bunch of people doing minor demolition work to help people rebuild their lives.

It was a memorable and moving experience for a lot of the people that went, and many of them dedicated weeks or even months of their summer to returning to New Orleans and continuing the job. A few of them took the initiative to try and figure out how to get a big group of Knox students down there again over December break; the waiting lists for the charity house-gutting work are still on the order of a year long. So it was that in mid-September an email went out to the faculty/staff mailing list asking for a couple of us to tag along and be "advisors" (i.e. responsible grownups) on the trip.

Now, I talk too much. I have known for some time that I don't do nearly enough along the lines of service and charity, and I had been trying to figure out where I could most effectively apply my time. The email came at the perfect point for me to just immediately turn around and say, "Yes!" (Strictly speaking, I said "maybe". I still needed to hammer out what other commitments I'd already made! ;) After a brief interlude for the fac/staff volunteers to self-select two to actually go, I became officially one of the two advisors to the trip.

My role is a very funny one, actually. I am doing precisely none of the actual organising; the student leaders are handling all of that. They've raised thousands of dollars and coordinated release forms and vans and myriad other details in order to make this trip possible. And it's not like I'm one of the few adults on the trip, either, since of course all (or nearly all) of the students are at least 18. I'm not expected to police the students. If someone gets hurt, the advisors are a last resort for approving medical whatnot, but only if the two or three emergency contacts can't be reached. It's true that I technically have a few years' more world experience than the students, but some of them, the leaders especially, are perfectly mature and able to handle themselves.

So basically, on the whole, I get to be just another pair of hands schlepping down to a disaster area to help some victims of bad luck and governmental mismanagement, help them get a jump on rebuilding their lives and communities. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was home to some of the most cohesive communities in the country, some of them going back decades or even centuries, and as time trickles on with little or no rebuilding, the old communities remain in diaspora, their cohesion slowly drifting away. I can only hope that the nine days I'll be helping out down there make a bit of a difference.

"You see 10 million billion miracles a day, and you want conjuring tricks." --Peter Barnes, The ruling class (Jack)

Posted by blahedo at 10:33pm on 21 Nov 2006
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