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Post-New Orleans Reflections from the Youth of the Winchester Unitarian Society

Thirty-three youth from the Winchester Unitarian Society Youth Group (MA), Jessica, Sean, 5 adults and 2 WUSYG alumns spent February vacation week working in St. Bernard Parish with Common Ground/Project H.O.P.E. It is difficult to put into words what we experienced there, but what follows on these pages are the immediate and raw thoughts and ideas from some who had this amazing opportunity to do a small piece of the massive amount of work that is still to be done in New Orleans.

Don Seymour, chaperone

Imagine the entire town of Winchester was forced to evacuate some six months ago due to a natural disaster. Some 20,000 of us escaped to safety (some of those who stayed died) and now we are all ready to come back. But there's a slight problem. Before we can move back into our houses a series of things must happen in sequence. Each of our homes must:

  • have several inches of mud shoveled out of the first floor
  • have the entire, waterlogged, contents (furniture, computers, TVs, clothes, books, pictures memorabilia) of the first floor removed from the house and piled curbside
  • have the soggy, muddy first-floor carpets cut up and hauled out
  • have all the sheetrock/plaster and insulation stripped from the first-floor walls, so that only the wood framing remains (ditto for the ceiling)

Ready to start work?  There are other complications:

  • many of our cars were destroyed and there are no car dealers or rental agencies operating between Portland, Maine, and Providence, Rhode Island
  • those with vehicles must negotiate streets without traffic lights or signage, many of which are still partially blocked by houses and trees and debris
  • we need tools to do our work but Fells Hardware, Home Depot, and Loews are all out of business (again, there's nothing between Portland, Maine, and Providence, Rhode Island)
  • we need laborers to assist us but they are in short supply: some haven't come back and those that have are already busy helping others
  • we wish our elected town officials would help but they are busy jousting with Medford, Woburn, Lexington and other towns over resource allocation
  • we wish other local officials would help but the mayor of Boston and the governor of Massachusetts are too busy posturing for the coming election
  • we wish the federal government would help but FEMA is inept, the Red Cross says it's not their job (in fairness they do provide good lunches) and our troops and tax dollars have been siphoned off to Iraq

Imagine how desperate we would feel in this situation. Then, envision a grass roots organization showing up, not just to help, but to provide the necessary infrastructure for other volunteers to help as well. This is Common Ground, simply getting it done. And this is WUSYG showing up and putting a shoulder to the wheel.

Becca Newhouse, sophomore

This trip was such a great time, but it was so much more than that. We all learned so much. I think people need to know most of all that the problems in New Orleans have far from disappeared. For so long it had been forgotten and ignored, while famous celebrities have broken up, and Cheney shot a man. But the destruction and the horrible fates of many lives is still alive and surrounding all who live down there.

When I first went down, I was scared out of my wits. I couldn't believe that in a country as big and as powerful as America , something like this would get loose and just happen. None of us can control Mother Nature, or what destruction it can cause, but we can all help rebuild. Look at your life, at the habits you have, at the friends you have, the things you love, and just imagine for a second, if it was all gone. Imagine your full wardrobe, and then two weeks later you have to go to a distribution center, where all they have for clothing is weird things from the early 80s. Not only that, but your lovely bed, and nice warm rooms—gone. Imagine staying in a house where the walls had to be taken down just to see if the house is still stable. But still, imagining these things, trying to picture your possible loss—let me tell you, it is nothing compared to when you get down there. You go in that house and actually muck out and take down someone's life, bit by bit. Taking apart their kitchen, shoveling out their clothes and memories from the attic. It's the hardest thing to do. What is even harder is now knowing if they're dead or alive. Not knowing whether they survived this. The next hardest step is to realize how little our government has done. The problem is alive as ever, and the way it looks now, it seem that New Orleans will be dead forever. The first thing you notice when arriving at New Orleans , is the red "x's" seen on all the houses. The top of the "x" resembles the date checked, and most houses weren't checked until 9-11. The bottom reveals how many were found dead in the house. What if your house had that x forever? For those people trying to restart their life, that horrible memory will be there forever.

The most important thing I want people to know is that you think sending down money is enough. But send it through the Red Cross, or FEMA, and all it will do is pay for crappy meals that make you constipated. You think it's too much to go down there and help, but it isn't. It is what is needed. I went down there not knowing what to expect, being scared out of mind of what I was going to see. I tried not to second guess anything, but it didn't work. While trying to prepare myself, I still opened my eyes and was shocked beyond belief. I remember leaning on my friends' shoulders, holding my friend's hand when we were scared out of our wits. I remember hugging a chaperone after visiting the lower ninth ward, being told it was okay to cry. I remember calling my mom for a check-in, just trying to explain what I felt and then eventually bursting into tears.

My current feeling? Coming home and feeling useless, feeling as though I didn't do enough. But certain words still burn in my head of what Isabelle , a leader of H.O.P.E. had told us all. She said not to think our work didn't mean anything in the big picture. She told us it was amazing we took time out of our lives to go and help, and that for so many families we gave them a place to live. I know it's true, because everybody keeps telling me. And I know the whole world isn't a horrible place. But if we say we all care so much about this hurricane, then why are so few people helping? I'm not saying it was an easy week. The nights got cold, the generator would shut down and the lights go out unexpectedly. I always had a flashlight with me. Always being prepared is part of it. Re-checking the respirator so I wouldn't inhale the mold. Running out of the house right away if my tyvek suit was torn.

I don't know how it's going to feel going back to school, if I'm going to feel what I feel now, still. But I'm going to do my best to give it my all, like I did in New Orleans . In the end, all the fears and worries seem almost stupid, I will miss all who I helped, and all who I met. I will always remember the way I lived for this one week, and how it completely changed me. For the rest of my life I will spread that to the others around me.

Susan Randolph, sophomore

Now that I'm home, all I can think about is getting back there as soon as possible. There is nothing that is more worth doing than being there and doing anything I can to make a difference. Looking around my room, I noticed how many things I had that could be more useful to someone else. All the books that I hadn't touched for years, and the clothes that I would never wear. After thinking about the trip for a long time and writing it all down in my journal, the heavy emotional side of everything I'd seen finally hit me full force. I went to my bookshelf and cleared out the books, and I went to my closet and cleared out the clothes. I even took out stuff that I had some attachment to, my favorite books and movies, my model car collections... I told myself that someone would have better use for them than me, and anything that couldn't be useful could be sold to make donations to Common Ground. I knew that each shirt I pulled out of my closet could be worn by one of the volunteers there, and that each book could be given to a kid who lost all the books they'd ever owned. It was really quite a profound realization, after seeing the situation for real. I was doing it less for my own ego than just because I felt that I had to for a change. That's what this trip was all about.

Going down to help in New Orleans should be everybody's obligation, not just a few volunteers. I don't see why more people didn't offer their services. Undoubtedly, the government has done a horrendous job down there, and even if they had tried, the things they did would not have been what the people wanted. It is the people's job to rise up and fill that void, to do for the other people what we knew they would want to be done. My parents tried to point out to me that this would not be easy because everything required money. I had suggested that big contracting companies should simply agree to help out, because they knew their services were needed, and my parents told me that they couldn't do that because they still needed to pay their employees, who needed to feed their families. They said that in other situations, the government had paid people to come and do these kinds of jobs... it was a valid point, but this time, the government wasn't paying, it wasn't giving nearly as much as it owed, and so I think it should now become our responsibility to do what our government is not doing. It sounds idealistic, but I think that people need to call and get supermarkets, contractors, clothing stores, everyone, to make donations and help. And everyone else just needs to get down there and get the job done! All I see when I look at the situation now is corruption. I see a government that is broke, with an army that is in Iraq instead of its own country where it is needed, and people who are too caught up in organizing to actually start working. It's sad when a group of teenagers and under-age-30 volunteers is the only group in a twenty mile radius that is actually making a real difference in people's lives...

I've never had such a strong purpose for my life before. This experience has given me something to think about and something to work on. As hopeless as it seems, giving up, not doing anything, is not an option.

Clara McLinden, junior

What should I tell you about our trip? What do you need to know? Primarily, I think you need to understand the extent of the damage that we saw. It wasn't just one road or neighborhood, but actually miles and miles and towns and towns of obliterated houses and lives. The damage is ineffable, and people need to understand that even though Katrina may not be on the front page anymore, it doesn't mean that it's anywhere near taken care of. Six months after the hurricanes and hardly anything substantial has been taken care of. You need to realize that majority of the people are still homeless, that the majority are depending on donations to get by. Another major thing to keep in mind is how crucial donations are. Just by being down there a week, it was obvious how necessary donations are. (We lived off of them for a week!) Also, something to contradict popular belief is the lack of racial tension down there. From what we've observed, as long as you stay in reasonable boundaries, it's easy to see that for the most part everyone is just naturally working towards a common cause to rebuild their lives from the ground up.

On another note: I was watching a home improvement show late last night and it was in New Orleans . What infuriated me was that everyone on the show kept name dropping major organizations like FEMA and Red Cross and like saying how much they've done for them. I felt like screaming. How interesting, that they decided to fix people's houses that already had FEMA trailers (even those promised in December haven't arrived), and that they interviewed people that were currently housed in them and fed daily by the Red Cross. Of course those people would have something nice to say about them. But what about the majority of people on the cruise ship that we served at the distribution center? What about the people that have no place to live at all and are tenting on the sides of the highways, still? Shouldn't they be taken care of first? Last month I would have thought that helping rebuild anyone's house in New Orleans would be a good idea and a very noble cause. I guess I'm not the same person I was last month. Am I more perceptive? I don't know. This trip truly has changed me. It's not fair that I was able to come home and take a ten minute shower of all hot water WITH electricity so I could find my soap and then hop into bed in my heated room and fall asleep with bunches of blankets all around me. I was so close to just sleeping on the floor. I don't need all these comforts, and it makes me incredibly uncomfortable right now to be here, in a town which has SO much comfort, after spending a week in a place with none of it. I refuse to let myself recoil back to my normality.

Peter Steele, sophomore

We live in two worlds, and it's important to develop a presence in both of them. One of these worlds is the immediate one that consists of our routines on everything from a daily to yearly basis and the community we meet through these pursuits. The other world, which is much harder for us to control and which affects us slowly but more permanently, is the global one, where the effects of what happens to the rest of civilization gradually trickle down through time and space until they get to us.

It's easy to be concerned with the more local world because that's the one that we physically live in and which most obviously affects us. It's also hard to face the other one sometimes because it's so big. But that world isn't totally inaccessible, as this trip showed me. If you want to involve yourself in it, it's perfectly possible, and the experience will tend to be more gratifying, because you are affecting more people and the purposes you work for are less likely to be selfish. Once you have both worlds in perspective, I think you can make your own decisions about how you want to act in each one.

I think that people in general are not nearly confident enough in their ability to be self sufficient. In a perfect world, each one of us would be able to devote their energy to their own work in complete security that everybody else was doing theirs. We would be able to sit back and relax and trust that a disaster such as Katrina would be ably coped with by our government, just as it deals with the countless other administrative issues of our country. Katrina is different from most of these issues, however, in that it had a huge effect on people's day to day lives. Making a difference in this area has never been what government's good for. After all, how many times a day, do you either thank or curse the government as the cause of what happens to you? The people that make a difference to you are the members of the community you live in. To paraphrase what one of Project Hope's permanent residents said, New Orleans will be rebuilt from its communities and volunteers upward, not from the government downward.

New Orleans is hurting just as badly, or worse, than everybody says it is. Also, it's virtually empty of assistance to the naked eye. We never saw the government there—no FEMA, no police, no national guard. Just residents trying to rebuild their lives. Who's going to help them?

Gordy McIntosh, chaperone

My initial reaction was shock and outrage! Shock at the extent of the devastation and outrage at the appearance that little had been done about it in the last six months! Mardi Gras has brought renewed media attention to the area as I've seen several news paper articles and broadcasts about NOLA just since our return home. By many accounts much has been done but things take time. (I didn't see the area first hand immediately following the storm so I can't say what's been done or not done.)We have all heard stories of tragedy and loss, courage and survival, faith and hope, and try to process and understand all of our experiences. This experience has raised more questions for me and provided few answers. What were the actions/inactions that resulted in this tragedy? Could any of this been prevented and can we do things to prevent it in the future? To what extent does NOLA get rebuilt? Whose financial responsibility is it? Who's making the decisions versus who should be making them? These are just some of the many questions I've been asking myself. We can all point fingers and place blame, but the bottom line is that this is about people's lives. People who lost everything: homes, jobs, friends, family, pets, and a way of life they've come to know as there own. Ultimately we are all responsible in some way to put ourselves in their shoes, see it through their eyes, and do what we can to help them back on their life paths whatever they choose that path to be. I am encouraged by the people I saw working on their homes there, groups such as Common Ground, and especially WUSYG who came, saw, worked hard to make a few lives easier, and have returned home with an experience that they will share and make others aware and hopefully driven to help themselves! 

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Last updated on Thursday, August 2, 2012.

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