By NANOR HARTOUNIAN
Published: March 25, 2015
As my team and I spent our first night in New Orleans sitting on steps overlooking Jackson Square, sipping on Café Du Monde’s famous coffee and munching on beignets that were prepared to perfection, I came to a realization: of all the decisions I’ve made throughout my college career thus far, choosing to apply to Global Outreach (GO!) New Orleans was by far one of the best.
Prior to applying, I’d only heard positive things about GO!. It held the promise of being a learning opportunity in a multitude of ways, including the strengthening of one’s spirituality and sense of community on campus. With those incentives in mind, I applied without knowing just how deeply the decision would impact my life in the weeks to come.
Each GO! program is unique to the needs of its location. My team and I were given the opportunity to work with the St. Bernard Project, a non-profit organization that rebuilds homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina within St. Bernard Parish, located in Southeast Louisiana. As we began our week on Monday, March 16, at a 6 a.m. orientation, I don’t think any of us knew what we were truly in for.
Our days were long, but incredibly full. We began each day by waking up at 5 a.m., eating breakfast, packing lunch and driving to the site of our project, where we worked the 7 a.m. – 1 p.m. shift. We were assigned to work on the home of a woman named Ms. Patricia, who was forced to evacuate her home with her granddaughter, then relocated to Texas to live with her brother and was unable to return to New Orleans until many years later.
Meeting her and getting the chance to hear her story were instrumental in how I, as well as the rest of my team, treated working on her home. During orientation, one of the co-founders of the St. Bernard Project stressed that each of its volunteers must keep “The Grandma Rule” in mind when working on their respective homes. In other words, we were expected to handle each task with the care and dedication we would channel if we were working on our own grandmothers’ homes. Ms. Patricia’s constant positive presence and willingness to talk to us about her tough journey added a personal connotation to the home that I believe made each working day more rewarding.
As a team, 11 of us helped to paint, fix up and refurbish Ms. Patricia’s home. Throughout the week, my team and I constantly pushed ourselves to new heights. Each of us conquered fears that tested both physical and mental resilience that we weren’t expecting to deal with. By the end of the week, we were all left with a bittersweet feeling. Sure, we all felt a bit homesick for the familiar. However, as our working days went on and we saw the slow but sure progress we were making on Ms. Patricia’s house, we all wanted to ensure that the next volunteer group would feel a similar sense of connection the home and work just as hard to revitalize it.
One of the most inspiring aspects of this trip was realizing the optimistic and unwavering way in which New Orleans as a whole responded to the effects of Katrina. After experiencing such a disastrous tragedy, you would expect there to be a loss of unity and hope among the community. Throughout my week in Louisiana, I learned that this couldn’t be farther from the truth. There is a sense of resolute support among those we met while volunteering that is almost unbelievable. I am confident that while relief efforts largely contributed to the city’s progress, much of why New Orleans stands strong today is due to the community’s solidarity.
With Katrina’s 10th anniversary coming up this August, we all found ourselves volunteering in New Orleans during a pivotal time. Personally, I couldn’t have asked for a better support system in my GO! team. Together, we got the opportunity to explore the unique NOLA community, contribute to the Katrina relief efforts, grow as human beings and – most importantly – become a family. And I wouldn’t trade it for the world (well, maybe a freshly baked beignet, but that’s up for debate).