Tuesday, January 17, 2006

BRING IT BACK

Today is a day that has many important meanings: today is the very last first day of my career as an undergraduate, it is only a few days before my 22nd birthday, it is a week and half since we have returned from New Orleans, and it is the first day back on Campus to begin to share the stories, realities, and experiences we all encountered on our mission trip to NOLA.
Personally, it was weird to come home, back to a place where buildings are free of high water marks, a place where the putrid smell of mold is non existent, and even more so, a place where life moves so quickly, so loudly, and so vividly.
The comparison to four days spent in the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina seems surreal in a sense, that simply the sounds of birds chirping or the busy rush of the East Coast is a privilege and an enjoyment.
Since my return, the question has not yet waivered or faded out: what was it like down there? Is it as bad as I imagine?
And yet, I find these questions a bit selfish to those wanting to know. Yes, it is great that they want to hear about what the reality of the situation is, but the truth is, I'd rather be asked, how can we help or how can we fix this situation?
BUt then again, maybe that is the daunting task that lies ahead of us. The truth for the 14 of us, is that in more than one sense, the trip to NEW ORLEANS was a mission trip in that we were there to understand, and be with and for the people of NOLA but on the other hand, it is that we have been charged with a mission to BRING THIS BACK. And, that is what we plan to do.
The entire trip we documented and video taped so that now we are about to begin the process of creating a documentary so that we can show the campus the reality of the situation. I learned on the trip that the only way to extinguish the dichotomy that exists within the minds of everyone that it is US in Philly and THEM in New Orleans of us and them in so many terms, can only be eradicated with reality and experience.
That is the daunting task that lies ahead of us, but yet as a team we do not look at is as a challenge, but rather a mission, and one that we are ready to embark on to BRING IT BACK to those around us, and extend the reality of the situation to all those who see the video or look at a picture, or read a journaly entry.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint

Each place that we visit in our lives will introduce us to something new- whether it be new foods, new climate, new scenery or a new culture.

My experience in New Orleans, however, taught me a little bit more than all of that.

Yes, I was able to sample corn grits and po boy sandwiches, bask in 70 degree temperatures in January, take in the sights of the beautiful parts of the city and alternatively the other areas' eye-opening and heartwrenchingly devastated remains, and finally I was introduced to the rich culture that is the birthplace of jazz and everything Mardi Gras.

However, I will take from this city much more than these tangible things. I will take from this city the spirit of a downtrodden people pushing to rebuild. I will take from this city the unrelenting will to move on, despite hardships and unfortunate realities. And I will take from this city's residents the belief that love survives all.

Jim Huck, a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, spoke with us Thursday and offered some powerful insights into the Hurricane's effect on the city. Jim told us that rich and poor didn't matter when the hurricane hit, levees broke, and the city had been flooded. No matter what amount of money you had sitting in a nest egg in the bank and no matter what expensive car was once sitting in your expensive driveway, it would not save you. Nothing tangible could. What mattered was what lie inside of each individual person.

Unfortunately, many people did not survive this tragedy, as they may have not been met with the resources necessary to escape to survival, or were not even afforded the opportunity to try. These lives will always be remembered and kept in our prayers and hearts. It is hard to find sense in tragedies such as these. But we can do justice to the lost lives by refusing to forget what has happened and the people affected by it.

It is the sincere hope of the 14 individuals privileged enough to have seen the city and met its gracious people to raise awareness about the current situation in the city and to inpire others to extend aid to it. Thank you for taking the time to read this blog in order to learn of the events and insights gathered from the individuals that went on this trip. Please stay tuned as we compile pictures and eventually a documentary to further share our experiences.

God bless.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Bringing the experience home NOW...

Being that the Internet is a commodity these days, the blogs have been few and far between. Just another daily reminder of how Hurricane Katrina has affected the lives of the good people of New Orelans.

As we pack our bags, eat some King Cake (a New Orleans tradition on January 6th), and plan for our final reflection with the group, words truly cannot encapsulate the experience that was New Orleans: our real World (NOW). Yesterday was our last work day and how appropriate that we worked with the same Sisters (Kathleen and Margaret) with whom we began the week. They and all the people of New Orleans have been incredibly gracious in welcoming us into their sacred, devastated homes. Working alongside these witty, compassionate, and truly Faith-filled nuns, I learned something about the power of Faith.

In spite of all that these people have to overcome (and trust me when I say there is still a GREAT DEAL more to be done before New Orleans is back on its feet), they are blessed with the friendships and helping hands of their friends, families and neighbors who have all gone throught this tragedy together. Through it all, Faith in God has helped many to prevail and see a light that I initially could never see. It is "NOW" up to the 14 of us to not only bring our peronal bonds home and continue the conversations, but to open our hearts, minds, and knowledge of what we have seen to all we will meet upon our return. We need to show others that the people are still displaced and that we as humans are committed to working with them to bring about social change. The road ahead may be an uphill climb for these newfound friends of ours, but through prayer and a commitment to service, I have no doubt that New Orleans WILL BE BACK!

Goodbye New Orleans!

It is 7:15 on Friday morning, and the group is preparing to depart from our beloved city, New Orleans. Last night at our final reflection, we each spoke about the lessons we have learned during our stay here, and how this experience has impacted the way we think about poverty and social justice. For me, this trip has shown me how the strength of faith and love can overcome any kind of disaster. The victims we spoke to this week talked about how they have realized, more than ever, how unncesssary material possessions are, and just how important and meaningful family is. This may sound simple, but this week we watched families throw out everything they owned. Everything was destroyed -- pictures, furniture, toys, Christmas decorations, clothing, houseplants, lamps, shoes .... and yet, as these families stood and looked at their belongings laying in a pile of trash on the street, they were able to see and understand that these things did not matter- what mattered was that their loved ones were safe and standing right beside them. Their faith in themselves and their family to get through the tragedy and return to a normal life was inspirational.

At the beginning of this trip, Matt told me that our goal was to learn to walk in the shoes of the poor to understand poverty. At first, I thought this was too abstract- I wanted to know exactly what our work would be like this week, down to each and every project. But, as the week is ending, I know that I have truly walked in the shoes of the poor. I have held their hands as the entered their homes for the first time after Hurricane Katrina, talked with them about their losses and goals for a new beginning. They have shared the little they have with us, strangers they graciously allowed into their homes and into their lives. Only after we can walk in the shoes of the poor can we truly understand poverty and work closer to achieving social justice.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

What you spend years building...

... someone could destroy overnight.

Build anyway.

Today we were privileged to walk onto the sacred ground of Theresa and Saul Mauss- that sacred ground being the floors of their home. Theresa shed tears as we lead her into the back bedroom of her home and asked her to look through the debris to see if there was anything that she did not want us to throw out. We watched as the kind, welcoming woman who had so kindly referred to us as "angels sent from the Lord" looked through the belongings that she had once proudly filled her home with, and determined that most had been broken, destroyed, or were now too covered with mold to be kept. As we piled high the unsalvageable items of her home, she wiped tears from her eyes watching years and memories flee from her possession.

A large fish tank sat in the former living room of the home. Its water was stagnant and moldy, and I was sure I would not find life within it. However, as I lifted a plastic plant out of the stones at the bottom of the tank, a large perch fish sprang to life and frantically swam around the tank. Just as the fish sprang to life out of the murkiness and darkness of the water and home, so too had Theresa and Saul found life and the determination to move on out of the murkiness and darkness of their home and the neighborhood that they call home.

Theresa and Saul are receiving aid from Hope House, an organization committed to "creating a society in which truth and justice abide" that "fosters dignity and worth in those with whom we live and work." Hope House's director Don Everard spoke at length with us this afternoon, detailing the unfortunate situation that is living in poverty in New Orleans. The average annual family income of individuals living in Hope House's subsidized housing is $8000/year. However, since Hurricane Katrina, nearly all conventional subsidized housing has been closed. Before the Hurricane, roughly 32,000 individuals were living in this housing. They were forced to relocate and many were unable to. Where do the poor turn when their homes have been washed away?

We asked Don what we, as residents of the northeastern United States can do to help these impoverished people once we have left New Orleans and returned to Saint Joseph's University. Luckily, Don had a few suggestions: 1.) Align yourselves with low income individuals in your own cities. Help them to live a stable life by helping to give them a stable place to live that they might call home. 2.) Take action when national legislation is going through. Fight for the rights of the poor and downtrodden.

I encourage you, too, to take on the challenges that Don has presented.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Day 4: A New Day, A New Hope

Today starts the 4th day here in New Orleans and the 3rd day of work. As usual, it started with a reflection led by myself (Jonathan) and Mike McDonald. We focused especially on the 4 words, "Silence, Awareness, Understanding, and Community," which helped us keep a clear and positive attitude about the work we've completed and the work we're about to undertake.

Today's task focused on a couple, Theresa and Saul, who gave us the opportunity to work in their house through a not-for-profit organization called Hope House. Matt Russo introduced us to Brother Don, who is the director of Hope House. Through this connection, we were fortunate enough to be welcomed into their home and now call them our friends. It was a day of dust, dirt, and a fish that has survived since late August. I personally wanted to name him Geppeddo, while other people threw out the options Survivor and Nemo. Whichever. Take your pick Regardless, our physically demanding work included clearing out the entire house, pulling up carpet, and ripping down ceilings that were damaged by the massive amounts of rain that fell during Katrina. Of course all this took place on the hottest day of the week but I'm not complaining. It was worth the look on Theresa and Saul's faces as we packed up to leave. They were so grateful a group of young, committed citizens cared enough to travel from Philadelphia and help become a part of their life.

Just like some previous days' work, it became apparent to me (and the rest of the team) that it truly only takes one spark to create something positive. We realize we're one step in a huge process that focuses on the same 4 words we reflected on this morning: Silence, Awareness, Understanding, Community. From the knowledge we've gained and the education we'll soon be able to provide, our work is the middle-ground some are not fortunate enough to partake in. With this in mind, we may only be here for one more day of work, but our actions, new friendships, and readiness to empower others is truly an indication of what we're called to do as "men and women with and for others."

God bless as we continue our journey...

Reflections from a torn city

Last night, we were blessed to speak with Bob and Dierdre Mauss, a couple displaced by the hurricane back in September and now commuting from their new refuge outside of the city to work every day. After gutting their entire home, they sat with us for an hour and a half to discuss their trials since the storm and answer questions. They both work for and with the disenfranchised and, ironically enough, they are now the ones being served.

Another thing we have noticed are the lack of stores, restaurants, malls, etc. which are open. The people poor and marginalized who would normally be making food, cleaning, etc. have been displaced to the point that businesses can no longer keep their doors open 24/7 (as in the past) or even at all. Driving 20 minutes away for a case of water is not an uncommon occurrence these days.

The group has become one and our gracious host/tour guide/pit boss/friend, Matt Russo, has helped us to truly understand the faces of the poor in a way that will forever stay with us. As much as we are saddened at the thought of leaving this incredible city in 2 days, we welcome the opportunity to bring this experience, and the insight we have gotten into the experiences of our new friends, back to Saint Joseph's and Philadelphia amongst our friends and family. We love you and we miss you.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Tonight's Reflections

It honestly felt really good to just get in there today and actually do some physical labor. The group was amazing - we were all anxious to make progress on Bob and Deidre's house. We began our work around 8:30 this morning, and finished at about 4:30. In the afternoon, we cracked and broke down the plaster on the walls, worked on pulling up boards on the walls, and Matt Russo and Andrew worked a little on pulling up some floor boards. We used hammers to hit and break the plaster, which created an incredible amount of dust! After all of the plaster was torn away, we had to shovel it and transport it to piles outside.

In order to remain safe from all of the mold and dust, we each wear these blue suits and face masks. As we work, it's difficult to identify who another person is right away since we all look alike! We get so hot and so sweaty underneath the suits that by the end of the day, our clothes are completely soaked.

We all did some hard work this afternoon. Everyone really came together as a team to get the job done on Bob and Deidre's house. I keep thinking of a line from an Indigo Girls song - "I have to use my hands, not just my head." We have been educated about the issues surrounding Hurricane Katrina, are meeting the people here, and experiencing life after the destruction. It's time to do some hard work in order to make a difference in the lives of the people here.

One last thing I forgot to mention- we are staying right next to Loyola University - what a beautiful campus!

Day 2...All Hands on Deck

Surprisingly at our 6:45am wake up this morning, the entire group was up and ready to begin to work to help "put the pieces" together for a family. The group was split into two, one heading to Bob and Deidre's house to start tearing down the walls, while the my group headed to Glen's house to begin to empty it out.

When we arrived at Glen's house, an upside down car welcomed up and presented us with what seemed to be a daunting task, to empty out an entire woman's 45 year life at her house. With 7 of us leading the charge, we entered the family room to chaos. Wet cushions, broken glass, and molded linoleum covered the room and was the first target for clean up. As the day progressed, so did the work from light to heavy as a molded refrigeration and a washing machine still loaded with darks presented the next obstacle. As we attempted to remove both from the room, a putrid smell overcame us, leaving the 7 of us speechless for the moment as we took a second to breathe in the personal effects of Hurricane Katrina.

Glen then arrived to her house with two small dogs in hand to join in the effort. She was followed by her son, her son's fiancé, and two younger children. With the team ever bigger, the clean up progressed at a quicker pace and within 4 short hours, we were able to empty the entire house, while managing to salvage a small number of keepsakes, which Glen commented as the things "which really mattered".

What struck me the most was an "I Love You Mom" frame that Jon and I managed to save from a ravaged bedroom. When presenting this frame back to Glen, she stopped for a moment, and looked at her son, who had given it to her, and said this is what matters to me, love.

As we ended our work at Glen's house, she gratefully thanked us a million times for the work that we did for, and commented that the grass had begun to grow back, and that life will return, and her house, wherever it may be in the future, will forever be blessed by the hands of "you Saint Joes kids" who made a difference.

-Christopher Romano

Building Up, Tearing Down

When you think about going to help in hurricane recovery, you somehow get images of Jimmy Carter and Habitat for Humanity...of people rebuilding homes, raising new house frames into place. But before the skeleton of a new home can be built, you have to face the ravaged bones of a place where a family once lived.

Today we worked in the home of a family from Matt Russo's parish: Bob and Deidre. They are one of the countless families who have decided to pick up their lives in New Orleans right where they were interrupted. Before they can renovate their home, though, they have to tear away everything that was damaged by the floodwaters. We pulled down the crown molding from the ceilings, a sign of a fully decorated home turned into a marker of the extent of the damage. We began to tear at the walls. They were so waterlogged and moldy that some of them peeled away.

It certainly looks and feels like we're pulling a house apart, but we know that we're helping people put their lives back together.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Our first day on the work site

I arrived yesterday with 9 other members of the group in muggy New Orleans, one member less than we had planned to leave with. Unfortunately, Erika has fallen ill and is unable to join us, but her presence has greatly been missed thus far. We spent our first day getting acclimated to the area, taking in sights and sounds and getting our first glimpses at the devastation that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita had wreaked on this lively area. However, we have seen time and again throughout the city that the power and fury of the hurricanes are no match for the spirit of the people here.

This morning, we were able to work at our first work site, the home of Sisters Kathleen and Margaret, of the order of Saint Joseph. The sisters were able to evacuate two days before the storm hit. They were fortunate in that their losses were only material. We helped them to remove the debris from their homes which included large items like refrigerators, couches, and beds and the small memorable pieces that will be more sorely missed like books, videos and pictures.

Megan Halferty

{New Orleans: our real World}...Reality Hits

As I landed in the New Orleans airport this morning, I was overcome with nostalgic memories and sentiments of my last service trip to New Orleans in June of 2005, before Hurricane Katrina. The airport wasn't much different in composition: there were still luggage conveyor belts, gift shops and fast food places, but there was a major difference; it was empty, desolate.

This scene of barren emptiness did not stop at the airport, continuing on a tour through the devastating path of Hurricane Katrina, which our facilitator Matt Russo led us on. From neighborhood to neighborhood, the scenes became very similar; spraypainted numbers to represent the amount of people found in rescue attempts, dark black water marks standing way above 5 feet, and homes ravaged by the path of the storm.

Thinking that it was not possible that we could see anything worse than an upside down car or smell anything worse than a mold infected St. Gabriel's church, our van slowly pulled up to a sight unlike anything that I or anyone in the group for that matter, had ever seen before. The only way to possible describe the scene, would be to that of the movie Independence Day when Will Smith walks out and there is nothing, no noise, no sound, just carnage. The lower 9th ward was to me, Independence Day reincarnate. It was a scene that engulfed all of my senses; visually I was in awe, while emotionally I was confused and shocked. How could levees shatter allowing the weight of water pushed by its current to destroy an entire neighboorhood. People slowly walked the streets looking to "pick up the pieces" to their once beautiful homes, but more importantly, to their once lives of normalcy. As we reconvened in the van, we slowly exited the area and one particular spray paint message stuck in my mind; it was light green and it read three letters: DOA, dead on arrival. We were no longer just standing in a neighboorhood, but a graveyard of people and their once normal way of life.

-CHRISTOPHER ROMANO

A New Year in New Orleans

After being here in the "Big Easy" for over 24 hours, the group has not only been completely in awe of the utter destruction that is still apparent in Katrina's Wake 4 months post-hurricane, but we have been welcomed by the open arms of the wonderful people of New Orleans and the Louisiana area.

One vivid piece of imagery which sticks out vividly from today's events came when visiting the Lower 9th Ward, one of the areas hardest hit when the levees broke. Standing in the center of the foundation of a house which had once been there (and was nowhere to be found), I looked down only to see a child's bicycle, also ravaged by the storm. The "neighborhood" was no more and the one-time residents were left only to pick up pieces of their past lives. We are working not only to rebuild people's houses, but also their lives!

Monday, January 2nd - Welcome to New Orleans!

Chris, Jed, Andrew and I arrived in New Orleans today. As soon as we stepped off the plane, we could tell it was hot and muggy out- around 75 degrees! It has been an amazing experience already. The SJU group is staying at the Dominican Conference Center and are working with Matt Russo, who is a coordinator for Maryknoll Mission. After we arrived, Matt gave us an incredible tour of the devastated city. I think we were all in shock as we drove through absolutely ravaged areas. During the tour, Matt said that only about 25% of the residents of New Orleans are still here. I could completely feel the quietness and the deadness of the city. Neighborhoods are completely deserted. Piles and piles of cars, furniture, debris litter the streets and the front yards. The mold is the most unbelievable thing - homes are so destroyed from water damage, that mold is just so prevalent and intense - we need to really cover our mouths before we walk into homes. I cant even begin to describe how sad and overwhelming these sites are. They are truly sites one needs to witness to understand. Looking forward to working at family's home in Matt's parish tomorrow. I think we are doing some carpentry work.