Wednesday, July 9, 2008


NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - July 10 -- The high-school sign off the side of the road read that classes are to begin on the same day as my birthday - August 8. What caught me off guard was the year - 2005. Katrina had struck nearly three ago, and the sign hadn't changed since. As we drove through the ninth ward, I noticed the houses had giant orange and black spray painted X's on the outside to communicate a piece of information in each quadrant - the group that inspected the home, when they did it, any pets rescued, and finally, the number of dead bodies.

We showed up at Desire Street Mission to see if there was any way we could contribute. To say they needed help would be an understatement. Our 21-year-old boss for the day, Lori, scheduled Brian and I to be part of the team that was to gut the inside of a water-damaged house. On our way to the work site, I noticed another team down the street getting ready to prime boards on the front of another hurricane victim's home. I painted houses during college summers and knew refocusing my energy in that area would be more beneficial. I asked the group leader about joining and immediately became the painting expert.

I gave painting directions to high school kids who had never before held a paintbrush. Brian needed a bit of instructing as well. I felt like my dad, who taught me to paint many years ago - the only difference being that my dad never gave me ice cream breaks. Geraldine, the woman living in the house, appeared from her home as she left for work. She smiled and told us how much she appreciated the help.

We finished painting and joined the people gutting the house down the street. I began peeling off fake-brick siding from the exterior of the house and while Brian filled up a dumpster with materials that were scattered across the front yard. It sounded like a firework exploded when the florescent lights in Brian's hands shattered as they scraped the pavement. His pants were rolled up due to the heat and we worried the glass may have stuck into his legs. He somehow escaped without injury.

The clothes we had worn during the day had a new look due to the sloppy painting and demolition debris. Luckily, we had turned our best clothes inside out. We changed down to our underwear to do so between two houses earlier in broad daylight.


Brian and I taught Junior Achievement to a group of third graders at a summer camp located in the upper ninth ward. The teaching objective was to stress the importance of newspapers and have the kids write their own story.

‘Why do we have newspapers?’ Brian asked as the session started.

Three out of the eight kids responded with the variation of - ‘To see if anyone has been murdered?’

We put all the kids' individual stories together at the end to compile a complete newspaper edition. They had written stories about their favorite basketball players, God, themselves, and other positive slices of life. None about murder.

Tia is a first-grade girl who lives in the upper ninth ward - an impoverished neighborhood to begin with, not to mention the struggles that multiplied from Katrina. She was the yellow plastic figure during Candyland. She never went out of turn and played only one game. After coming in second place, she walked over to me, sat on my lap, and collected the used cards while I managed the other children during the game. Tia became my friend and soon was introducing me to all of her cousins who were inside the gymnasium. She was either holding my hand or on my back the majority of the day. She doesn’t normally like boys but said she liked me. It made me smile ear to ear.

I saw Brian was sweating pretty intensely when I came into the gym. He was in the middle of playing the trust game with a group of kids. Standing with their backs toward Brian, they fall backward into his arms, trusting that he would be there to catch them. He got the kids so excited they were all trying to fall back at the same time with no one behind them. Sitting next to the action, the little kids began to pull at my hair, saying how soft it looked. A second-grade boy asked if we could trade hair. I would've if I could've.

As we left, I made sure to give a proper goodbye to my friend.

‘Are you gonna be here forever?’ Tia asked.

Sadly, I had to tell her no. I went to give her one more hug, which turned into five, maybe six.


Lauren said...

"I went to give her one more hug, which turned into five, maybe six."

Awww :)

This whole post is so sweet...

Erin Bernstein said...

You managed to make me cry and laugh all within one post.

New Orleans is an intense experience. I hope you get to talk deeply with the people you're meeting.

And by the way, I have a picture of a sign from a high school in New Orleans. It's the school calendar and the last date is August 23, 2005: the first day of school. The school has been closed since then.

wayne drehs said...

You guys continue to amaze me. Keep it up -- your journey is an inspiration to us all.

Big sisters Jodie and Windy said...

We loved your story, and it's good you can use your painting skills on your trip. Dad is a little upset that you were giving so many breaks. :) We're about to take a cruise in the boat- wish you were here; however, Jodie is thrilled to have the extra cocktails.

Take care and we love you tons!

Dad, Mom, Jodie, Win

Anonymous said...

We sure could use some of your spirit of caring here with all the devistation from the flooding we've had. Anytime you feel like helping out, come on back home. It may not be as exciting as the anonymity of being in a strange world, though many could use the help, now cleaning up. Come be an inspiration.