- Emily C.
- Feb 14, 2017
It was a cold Saturday morning when I dragged my luggage through the snow to meet the coach bus that would be carrying myself and 37 other Western students to New Orleans. I had signed up to participate in Western’s Alternative Spring Break program (ASB) and would be spending reading week volunteering with Habitat for Humanity rebuilding homes for families still recovering from the impacts of Hurricane Katrina.
Twenty-two long hours later we arrived in New Orleans and quickly set off to go explore the French Quarter. New Orleans’ famous downtown was unlike anything I had seen before. The streets were filled with musicians, antique shops, and bars, all engulfed in the rich fragrance of creole cuisine. I spent the morning admiring the architecture and vibrant colours as I drifted in and out of voodoo shops and ice cream parlours. In the afternoon, all the volunteers gathered together to explore the Hurricane Katrina exhibit in The Presbytère museum and learn more about the conditions leading up to the hurricane and the destruction it caused. Being reminded of the impact the hurricane had and continues to have on the city greatly increased my anticipation for the work we would be doing in the upcoming days. Afterwards we attended a jazz concert at Preservation Hall. As we sat on wooden benches captivated by the musicians, we were immersed in the vivacious musical history of the city. This one of a kind experience was a great introduction to the city and allowed myself and the other students to develop a true appreciation for the unique New Orleans culture.
The following morning we travelled to the Lower Ninth Ward to begin our volunteer work. This community suffered the most damage from Hurricane Katrina and has yet to fully recover. Myself and a few other students were assigned the responsibility of restoring the appearance of a small garden marking the entrance to the Lower Ninth Ward. We spent the morning removing weeds, putting down mulch, and collecting garbage. As we worked we were constantly greeted by encouraging cheers and honking from residents passing by. Their enthusiastic appreciation made the seemingly mundane task of gardening that much more substantial and rewarding.
Later in the afternoon we all went on a bus tour of the Lower Ninth Ward guided by a local resident, Mr. Henry Erwin. As we drove through the streets, it was striking to see the contrast between the slow rehabilitation of this community compared to the completely restored French Quarter. Mr. Erwin explained how the Lower Ninth Ward had received only a fraction of the funding granted to the more touristy and affluent neighbourhoods and consequently remained vastly underdeveloped. It was disheartening to see the prominent inequalities within the various New Orleans communities, however I appreciated the opportunity to do my part in helping with the reconstruction.
For the remainder of the week we worked on a Habitat for Humanity construction site in the Lower Ninth Ward. Under the direction of a Habitat for Humanity volunteer we helped to rebuild a home for a woman named Rose whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Our week was consumed by installing paneling to the side of Rose’s house and painting both the interior and exterior. Throughout the week Rose would stop by to see the progress and aid in the construction. It was such a unique opportunity to be able to speak with Rose and have her share her story. Despite being displaced and estranged from her family for many years, Rose had such a positive and upbeat attitude. She was ecstatic to move into her new home with her fiancée in a few weeks and constantly showed her great appreciation for all the volunteers who helped to make this happen. It was such a rewarding and meaningful experience to see firsthand how our volunteer work would contribute to changing Rose’s life.
Looking back on my first year, I am so glad to have participated in the Alternative Spring Break program. I left New Orleans with a greater appreciation for jazz music, 37 new friends, and a broadened mindset about the suffering and loss still present in Louisiana. I would encourage all students to participate in ASB if given the opportunity and have the same memorable experience as I did.