Rebecca Davis, a pharmacy student at the University of Rhode Island, was one of 15 URI Newman Club members and two URI alumni from the URI Catholic Center, who volunteered in New Orleans for a week in January. Rebecca is from Berwick, Maine.
“When Hurricane Katrina hit, I was in the process of moving into my residence hall as a freshman at the University of Rhode Island and the world was all about me. Katrina seemed so far away. I was aware there was large devastation, but I assumed the government and those who serve our country would come to the rescue of Mississippi and Louisiana and it would be better in no time.
The impact of Hurricane Katrina (and Rita too) didn’t sink in until I joined a trip to New Orleans, Louisiana with a group of students from the URI Catholic Center.
We helped fundraise our trip, including putting on a huge pancake breakfast that raised about $4,000.
Our group stayed at Camp Restore, a Lutheran camp in East New Orleans, which houses about 200 volunteers in bunks. Long-term volunteers that run the camp fed us three meals a day and coordinated our work projects.
These volunteers were inspiring–they put their lives on hold to help and lived in motor home trailers in the back of the camp. They enriched our trip and kept us focused on our purpose through prayer and devotion.
My work group spent four days sheet-rocking and insulating two homes. We met, Ron, one of the homeowners who is about 55 and disabled. Just before the storm, he had remodeled his home. Now it was completely destroyed. The beautiful hardwood floors were ripped up and holes were everywhere, warranting caution as we worked through the house.
Ron said he felt responsible for rebuilding his home and he never expected anything from the government. The problem in New Orleans right now is that even if the homeowners have the money to start rebuilding, there are too many dishonest contractors. They do half the work, collect all of the money, and then are never seen again. That’s is one of the reasons we were needed to help –we were the free labor. The homeowners paid for the supplies and we did the work.
Ron’s biggest push for us was that we see the city, eat the food, and get the true New Orleans experience. The people of New Orleans wanted all of us to love the city as much as they do and realize that it is worth rebuilding.
There are many projects, especially neighborhood-centered projects that are helping people come back and rebuild their homes. Yet New Orleans is nowhere near rebuilt. On our ride from the airport to Camp Restore, we could see just how empty parts of New Orleans still are because there were whole neighborhoods still dark and lifeless. FEMA trailers were still everywhere although the government is starting to take them once a family’s allotted time is up, regardless of whether their home is ready.
So, yes the trip was sad for me in some ways, but I was also inspired by the spirit of the people. The people were kind, welcoming, and appreciative to us in a way that I had never experienced. Even the woman at a bookstore in the French Quarter thanked us for coming down to help. Everyone says hello in passing and smiles are abundant everywhere. You could look around and see devastation, but look a little further, and you could find smiles and hope.
Each day, we met with someone who gave us his or her part of the Katrina/New Orleans story. We listened to a jazz band called the Tornado Brass Band at Preservation Hall who taught us about the spirit of New Orleans. We met with Jesuit Volunteers spending their year working in various places in the city. We met with the coordinator of Broadmoor Improvement Association, the group responsible for rebuilding the Broadmoor community in New Orleans, who gave us a thorough background of what really happened during and after Hurricane Katrina.
We met with two newspaper reporters and one photographer from The Times Picayune, the New Orleans newspaper that had stayed during the hurricane and in the weeks after to photograph and report all that was going on with the hope that the world would know what was really happening in New Orleans.
Our last visit was with Robert Green, a Lower 9th Ward native, who is functioning as the spokesperson for rebuilding that ward, which was the hardest hit area of the city. He lost his mother and granddaughter to Katrina, but he was inspired to move on and rebuild the neighborhood that he loves. He is contacting residents of the Lower 9th Ward that are scattered all over the country and working with the Brad Pitt’s “Make It Right” project to bring the Lower 9th Ward Back. Most of the homes are gone so they are starting from scratch.
I gave my heart to this project and left a piece of it in New Orleans. I made a vow to never forget all that I have seen. I realize you cannot save the whole world, but you can help out in more ways than you think. We sheet rocked one home, sanded the walls of another, and insulated one ceiling, but to residents it meant being one step closer to being back in their homes. Every little bit helps and that can be applied right here in our own community.
My faith as a Catholic has grown immensely. I came to believe in the power of prayer, as well as to take comfort in it. It was our support throughout the trip and we kept God by our sides throughout the trip. We prayed each and every day at Camp Restore at breakfast and dinner, as well as starting out each day at the job site with prayer and ending each evening with prayer and reflection with our group. Prayer helped us through our trip, especially dealing with the emotional challenges of what we learned and saw, and it saw us through to the end. It brought our group together, inspired us to help others, and taught each and every one of us a little something about ourselves that we may never have known before.
My goals in life still remain the same, but I have set the bar a little higher for myself, knowing that I can do more than just be a bystander to all that goes on around me. “