By Gina Fleming, OP
Sisters, young adults work together in New Orleans
During the week of Nov. 12–16, four Dominican Young Adults from around the country, as well as two sisters and one associate from Amityville, New York, traveled to New Orleans to participate in Nuns Build 2012. The build is sponsored by the St. Bernard Project, which is still very involved in rebuilding the homes of New Orleans residents who were displaced due to Hurricane Katrina.
The place that we stayed for the week was adjacent to the French Quarter, and was used during the day as a soup kitchen as well a food bank for the homeless. This was a very different setting than what we had previously been used to, but we were up for any challenges it might bring. After getting ourselves situated, we were ready for a good night’s sleep and prepared for our work in the morning.
After going to our 9 a.m. orientation at St. Bernard’s main office, we were off to our work site. On the first day, we had the opportunity to meet the woman who owned the home we were working on. With tears in her eyes, she spoke of her gratitude to us for all of the work we would do this week. She told us she would pray for us and ask God to bless us for our hard work and for making her dream of finally “coming home” a reality.
The young people, and ourselves, had the opportunity to engage in all types of work at the site. We cleaned, put up insulation, hung drywall, and used a variety of tools for each task! There was much to do, but all was done in a wonderful spirit of laughter and fun. We were all happy when we broke for lunch, especially when the Knights of Columbus brought us subs, cookies, chips and water… a real treat!
Along with working at the site, during our time in New Orleans we had the opportunity to help out at the homeless shelter where we were staying. We helped serve breakfast each morning and prepared boxes of dry and canned food for the families in the area to pick up. In addition, we had the opportunity to visit the French Quarter, see the area where Brad Pitt’s foundation is building new homes, and drive around the Ninth Ward, where much of the devastation of Katrina is still very visible.
This week was much more difficult than past years. When we left New York, we knew that there were so many people that were as desperate as the people of New Orleans were and still are. We had made the commitment and gotten the flights, so we decided that we would go, but our hearts and thoughts were in Long Island, Brooklyn, Queens and New Jersey. It was comforting to know that the people of New Orleans were kindred to our pain. They prayed constantly for the people of our communities, and some had already traveled to the East Coast to volunteer their services in this area.
Nuns Build is a great project for the people of New Orleans, but who knows—maybe we will have our own Nuns Build here in the metropolitan area!
Gina Fleming, OP (Amityville), is director of Dominican Young Adults USA and the Dominican College Preaching Conference.
Reflections from Dominican Young Adults who participated in the Nuns Build experience:
Thomas Paris, St. Catharine College, Kentucky
My first time to New Orleans was with Nuns Build, I had lived in New York for a couple of summers, so I thought I knew how the “city life” was, and being from Florida, I thought I knew all about hurricane damage. While I was in New York, I worked construction, so I was slightly educated in the construction department. Arriving in New Orleans, I couldn’t believe that it was seven years since the hurricane had struck; there was still so much devastation all over. I compared the amount of work we got done to when I worked in New York. What we did in that week could have been done in a day in New York. The only difference is that even though the 12 sisters I was with and three other young guys worked our tails off, and it might not of seemed like much work, you can’t put a price on how it gave the homeowner hope. Hope for a better tomorrow, knowledge that people will come from all over to help their community and that people do care. That was my favorite part of the whole trip, knowing that there is hope for the great city of New Orleans.
Jonathan Engstrom, Saint Catharine College, Kentucky
My experience with the St. Bernard Project and Nuns Build down in New Orleans was and still is hard to sum up, but there are simply so many things to say about it! What I can’t express here is exactly what you have to go there for yourself to figure out!
There is a lot going on to make this an easy opportunity for people to pitch in a helping hand. To the magnanimous people that helped organize the whole event and make this possible for myself and others, my endless gratitude is due. You helped me to help others. It is one thing to send your money, but to send yourself, your mind, your body, and your spirit, to encounter need in its purest form, is a form of support that both giver and receiver can greatly benefit from. It is for projects like this that gives me hope for our world. That in times of need there will be stewards who will be there to help right what went wrong. That in times of darkness and despair there will be people of compassion to help reveal the light again.
We were only there for a week, and while we didn’t finish the house we were assigned, we still worked like ants to accomplish the tasks given. Sticking with the ants comparison, you were really able to get a sense of the colony, the community, the workforce that was behind the whole operation. Then you had to imagine that this is still seven years after Katrina hit. Yeah that’s a long time, but the devastation that was, really is still insurmountable to me. I thought I knew about New Orleans, but I knew nothing. Having been there and having seen the community, the diversity, the food, the music, the fun, one understands, once you’re there, why you may never want to leave the place. Once you’re there, you’ll take part in the resilience of the human experience. You will find out for yourself that we are never alone in our times of need and this is reassuring because tragedy can befall anyone at anytime. It is imperative that we say yes to opportunities like this. If you’re tired of hearing about all the negativity in the news about this and that, take a chance to be the change you wish to see in the world and volunteer yourself away. Words can hardly express.
Andrew Vivia, Leadership Team Member, Dominican Young Adults USA, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
“Who dat,” “Who dat” —all too familiar words for me from my time living in the South, and words that woke me up on my first morning in Nola for Nuns Build. Ms. Antoinette said these words loud and proud as she handed out hot meals to individuals who were homeless in Nola. I arrived in Nola ready to build houses, not knowing my time would be spent largely, after our day of builds, in a homeless day shelter. Each morning, Ms. Antoinette and several others would rise early to begin serving hot breakfast at 7 a.m. I realized, since I was already awake from the cheers of “Who dat,” that I should help out however I could. I was in Nola to help build houses, however quickly realized how closely linked these two were.
My role in daily hot breakfast was to put the spoon/fork on the plates of food and organize as many as I could get onto the counter. It became a game for those volunteering their time, and by the end of the week, I was happy to have helped with an all-time high of placing 56 hot plates on the counter—on my first day I could not even hit 50.
As the days went by, I began to see my building of houses and helping serve hot meals to individuals who were homeless as one and the same. Many of the individuals who walked into St. Jude’s Community Center were homeless because of Hurricane Katrina, the reason I was there to build houses. Why would they not need a hot meal? Some of the people of New Orleans who lost their homes were able to move to another, stay with friends or family, or find another place to live. For some, that was not the case, and without a place to stay, they were unable to make hot meals. St. Jude’s became a place of consistency for some, a place where a hot meal could be provided for many who lost everything in Katrina.
Working with the St. Bernard Project to build houses for Nuns Build was an experience that is like no other. I had been to Nola many times, living just west of Nola for a year; however, never experienced the areas of town that were hit so profoundly. After seven years, areas east of New Orleans were still abandoned, homes hardly standing and boarded up, slabs of concrete from the existing foundation, and landowners who were still without a home. Imagine being without your home for seven years, something I had to imagine while in New Orleans and something I wish to never imagine again; however the truth is that it is a reality.
The St. Bernard Project, which has been helping those without homes for the entire seven years, is still getting several calls a week from individuals who need their homes rebuilt. When our time came to leave, 116 people/families were still on the waiting list for their homes to be rebuilt.
While on site, at Lanett’s home, which St. Bernard’s was building for a second time due to damaged Chinese drywall, I realized how much still needs to be done in New Orleans. Building homes, especially correctly, is no small task. I worked very closely with Jean, a woman from Chicago who came down with a group of sisters to help build. We became a great team, and spent the week prepping the walls and ceilings for insulation and drywall and insulating the ceilings. It was physically exhausting, but such an amazing experience. It was amazing to see the work you personally accomplished as well as the work of the group and how far we came throughout our time.
New Orleans itself is a wonderful, beautiful and confusing city, especially after seeing how much damage was still evident. The warmth, thankfulness, and overall happiness and excitement I experienced throughout my time there was overwhelming. After having much of the city and people’s lives destroyed from Katrina,the positive nature that was pouring out from everyone, every street corner, every pub, essentially everywhere was like nothing you can even begin to explain. If I had lost my home and everything of value to me in Katrina, and after seven years did not have a home, I doubt I would be as positive. This city and its people are beautiful and a blessing for all who are able to visit the city.
Spending time hearing stories of families and people who suffered from Katrina was emotional yet uplifting. These people of New Orleans were able to take something so horrific and use Katrina as a catalyst to build an ever stronger and beautiful New Orleans, because of the change in attitude and value of life from those who lived in Nola when Katrina hit.
Only two short weeks after Sandy had hit the Northeast, it was intense to see some of the devastation. Being with several people who were down in Nola to help that had come from the Northeast was also inspiring. I believe being in Nola for the week and seeing how resilient the city was gave them hope. Hope that the Northeast would be rebuilt and hope that in some ways it would be quicker than New Orleans.
As the week was coming to a close, a small quote from a short film I saw while there continues to reside with me. An Ursuline Sister said how much she wanted to forget Katrina, and not tell the story indefinitely; however, as time went on she began to see that Katrina was part of who she, her order, the people of New Orleans and even our nation had become: a people of resilience and great strength. Telling of Katrina shows how the city came back from something so terrible and is growing stronger than before. Katrina had become part of who we are as Americans and if telling the stories of Katrina gives hope for those who experience doubt and fear from any personal or group disaster, then it is a story that should always be told.
I can only hope that as we continue to live day after the next we remember Katrina. We remember our history; dark as it may be, it is part of who this nation is. We are so much more than the physical devastation wrought by Katrina. We are a people who experience devastation when it comes, and use it to become even stronger, to become a community that believes that we are not too fragile to be forever ruined from a great storm. At the end, we come out hopeful for where we can go and blessed for what we continue to have.
Jonathan Torres, Mount St. Mary’s College, Newburgh, New York
Being able to participate in Nuns Build was by far the best experience I had been part of. Not only did I get a chance to travel to New Orleans, I was given the chance to make a difference in a person’s life that lost everything because of Hurricanes Katrina and Isaac. Words can’t even describe how much help and support victims of Hurricane Karina and Isaac needed, and to be able to say that I helped out in reconstructing a home is a life-changing experience. In New Orleans, we stayed at Saint Jude’s community center. This was a combination soup kitchen and housing site for volunteers.
When we first arrived at the home we would be working on, there were a lot to be done. Thanks to St. Bernard Project, we were taught many skills, such as installing insulation, measuring, and putting up drywall, many skills that will be useful for me in the future. Day by day we progressively helped rebuild the home. On the last day helping out we looked around and saw the progress. It was incredible. We had insulated the entire house and set up closets and ceilings with drywall. It actually looked like a home. It feels good to know that the owner is one step closer to moving back into her brand-new house that we all worked on. This experience was definitely an eye opener and hopefully in the near future I will be given the opportunity to make a difference in somebody else’s life again.
Arriving in New Orleans, I couldn’t believe that it was seven years since the hurricane had struck; there was still so much devastation all over… Even though [we] worked our tails off, and it might not of seemed like much work, you can’t put a price on how it gave the homeowner hope. Hope for a better tomorrow, knowledge that people will come from all over to help their community and that people do care.”
Thomas Paris, St. Catharine College, Kentucky
Only two short weeks after Sandy had hit the Northeast, it was intense to see some of the devastation. Being with several people who were down in Nola to help that had come from the Northeast was also inspiring. I believe being in Nola for the week and seeing how resilient the city was gave them hope.
Andrew Vivia, DYA USA Leadership Team, Milwaukee WI