comletely revised narrative
Breaking the Mold
By Brenna Wade
IT IS AS IF WE ARE IN A THIRID WORLD COUNTRY, or a ghost town, with desolate streets and dilapidated buildings. I feel around for my glasses and quickly put them on. I can’t believe what I see when I peer out of the lightly tinted bus windows. I feel like we have been traveling for days not hours. There are rows among rows of cars covered in a white residue on the sides of the main roads. Road signs fallen or non-existent; buildings reduced to roofs held up by wooden beams. I looked to my professors for input but they simply tell me the worst is yet to come. My mind began to race, filling with questions in anticipation of what the next two weeks has in store for me and the other student volunteers from Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, on our journey to help rebuild New Orleans.
“Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee,” I am quickly interrupted by a high pitched squeal so loud that it makes my whole face flinch. It is one of my professors trying to use the loudspeaker on the bus to tell us that we are about to reach our destination. By the time he figures out how to use it, the bus has stopped at what seems to be an abandoned church parking lot that, in my best judgment, seems to have escaped the wrath of Hurricane Katrina. The bus has stopped at what seems to be a completely abandoned church parking lot that, to my best judgment, seems to have escaped the wrath of Hurricane Katrina. As I step off the bus it hits me. We are actually in New Orleans. There’s no turning back. I am overwhelmed with the images from the media of looters stealing things and the words of my father telling me to be careful of alligators and snakes. Have I gotten myself into something that I can’t handle? The only people I really know on the trip are my ex-boyfriend, who I am not speaking to, two of his good friends, and two girls that live upstairs from me. But I didn’t sign up for the trip to make friends. I don’t think any of us did.
I signed up for this class to spend two weeks in January rebuilding New Orleans. I remember sitting in a frat house the weekend before school started watching a football game, while news banners were reeling at the bottom of the screen telling us that a Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast as a category 3 storm, destroying virtually all in its path. For weeks afterward,, that same television screen was filled with images of people walking through oil filled waters up to their shoulders, people standing on their roofs desperate to be rescued; thousands of people crammed into the superdome in seek of food, of family members, of help.
This made me remember when Hurricane Isabel came through the areas of my home town about three years earlier, leaving flooding and devastation in its wake. As awful as that experience was for me and those I loved, I am quickly learning that the tragedy in New Orleans was far worse. They needed help. They needed our help. My twenty-nine classmates, three professors, and I were here in this church parking lot for that very reason.
When the bus door finally opened, we quickly grabbed our pillows and backpacks and made our way through the big doors of the Gretna United Methodist Church. A brown haired woman named with a great warmth about her greeted us in the hallway. Her name was Lisa and she showed us to the rooms where we would be staying. My room was a cheery red color. It was spacious with three couches, a foosball table, and a TV. Since the girls outnumbered the boys, we laid claims on it, giving the boys the room next door despite their many failed efforts of switching so that they could have the TV. After we laid claims on where we wanted to sleep, Lisa kindly showed us around the church. She told us they were blessed in that the only room damaged by the storm was the one we were staying in, but that they had it fully redone so that mission groups like ourselves could stay and help. I thought we were going to be staying in a half destroyed church with one shower and no hot water. It was at this point that I realized all of my inhibitions were wrong. These two weeks were going to be something totally unpredictable and I was ready to see what was in store for us.
What actually was in store for us was something that I had never imagined I would be a part of in my entire life. We knew we were going to be working on people’s houses that had been destroyed by Katrina, but we had no idea we would be rebuilding their homes, throwing away all their memories while hearing their remarkable stories and really touching their lives just as they were touching ours. These twenty-nine classmates and three professors that I used to call strangers I soon learned to call my family.
* * *
We spent our days waking up to the mixed sound of phone alarms going off and to the clang of one of our professors banging a metal pot above our air mattresses at about 7:00 in the morning. We stumbled out of bed sore and exhausted from the day before. We put on our work boots, stocked our tool belts, and made sure not to forget our respirator masks and safety goggles that were ever so important during the course of the day.
We were eager to get the chance to help the families that had fallen victim to Katrina. Our initial arrival at each house was often the most intense. Intense with appreciation from the homeowner that they were finally getting help, with images of waterlogged moldy walls and saturated belongings, and with our own overwhelming emotions for these innocent families, so undeserving of such devastation.
The inside of the houses looked the way boats do when they have sunk and are later washed up on to shore. Everything was misplaced and rusted. Refrigerators were turned on their sides and water still filled bowls and glasses in kitchen cabinets. Mold had covered everything from the floor to the ceiling and a putrid smell surrounded us as if to push us away. Dark green water lines clearly marked the walls often as high as ten to twelve feet from the ground. Pictures hanging on the walls were faded and the colors all ran together. Beautiful white wedding dresses, now green and brown, their necklines rusted from where they were once hung on metal hangers. Photo albums now clumps of paper and color residue. The treasured memories of others, exposed and ravaged by stagnant pools or soupy waste.
This was often the hardest part, taking wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of possessions outside and throwing them into a pile that eventually reached well over ten feet in height. Our safety goggles shielded us not only from debris, but hid the tears that fell for these families. Flashes of my own life kept popping up in my head. I couldn’t imagine everything I owned sitting in a pile in front of my house waiting to be scooped up and thrown into huge garbage trucks. We worked for hours emptying out the houses, ripping up carpet and linoleum and tearing down walls and remnants of insulation leaving only the concrete floor and wooden beams that stood beneath it all. As we emptied out their homes of the evident of their lives, the families stood strong and their appreciation and optimistic attitudes were an inspiration to us all.
The first family that we met, Jerry and Tonya, will remain with me forever. They were working members of the community, a sheriff and a nurse, and they had bought their house a year and a half ago as their retirement home. When Katrina hit, Tonya was notified at work that a levee had breeched and that the area was flooding. She picked up her three children and they waded through the water to her car, which was parked on a high level in the parking garage at her work. She carried her son on her back and they left with nothing but the clothes on their back. For four days she could not get in contact with her husband, and didn’t even know if he was alive. Since he is a sheriff in the area he stayed to help the city and make sure as many people were being helped as possible. Everything in their house was destroyed but they say it will always be there home. When we asked how they felt they said,
“We haven’t had the time to consume it just yet”, Jeffrey said.
“We are taking it one day at a time and staying close to the Lord
along the way. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and
the hurricane has made our family much closer. We are no
longer looking in the rear view mirror but ahead, through the
windshield. It’s a beginning and we are excited about it. It’s
really not depressing at all, it’s a journey to a better future and
a start for rebuilding.”
They told us that their home was our home if we were ever in New Orleans again. Tonya, who was quiet at first, started telling us she wanted to have a bigger kitchen and the husband showed us where he was going to make the family room bigger. The way that they could go through so much and yet still feel so blessed made my classmates and I realize that we were doing more than rebuilding houses; we were giving people a new a chance and rebuilding lives.
Other families had stories even more tragic. One woman, Sharon, went through more than I could ever imagine anyone going through in one lifetime. She lost far more than her home and her possessions. Her mother died from brain trauma in a car accident trying to evacuate. Her husband was already suffering from congested heart failure and colon cancer and is now diagnosed with malignant bone cancer and will more than likely die soon. They didn’t have full flood insurance or full homeowners insurance and therefore didn’t receive enough money to repair their home because they had to spend their savings on funeral arrangements for her mother.
“I just don’t know what we’re gonna do. We’ve lived here all our life, and my family, they’re all gone; all scattered all over. I don’t know where they are. It’s so devastating, you lose so much. I’m gonna lose my husband as well and I lost my mother, my house, my neighbor, my neighborhood, everything.”
Hurricane Katrina affected Sharon in a way that none of us could truly understand. Her life is not turned upside down and on top of everything she has to worry about whether or not she is going to be able to keep her house.
It’s overwhelming, you try and get help but everyone tells you something different. What are we gonna do, where are we gonna
live? I know there are others who have stories harder and sadder
than mine. I am just disappointed in my government. I’ve never
asked my government for anything. I’m a good citizen, I pay my taxes. They are not giving us any help with the levees. The best they said they could do by June is make them withstand the same strength as they did before Katrina, that’s not good enough. That’s my story, I don’t know what that is and where it leads us
but that’s it.”
Her story highlighted the sad truth that not everyone had the same support system after the storm and some were affected far more than others. Some people faced things far worse than we had anticipated. After hearing Sharon’s story, I started to feel a little depressed the next couple days because I knew that there were more people who had stories even worse than hers. Was helping fifteen families really going to have an impact on the city when there are thousands of other families that need help too?
But then we met the Cline’s sisters. We worked on three of their homes, all located in the same neighborhood. Two of the homes belonged to Joy and Meredith and the other belonged to their mother, Greta. These ladies were already in the houses getting their hands dirty when we arrived, which was something we weren’t used to seeing. They weren’t able to salvage anything but were smiling and laughing the entire time we were with them, finding ways to make our job easier. They brought us fried chicken and kool-aid at lunch time one day as a break from the peanut butter sandwiches we were growing so tired of.
To show us their appreciation, they also rented out an entire restaurant and paid for us to have a full New Orleans style dinner with them before we left. We were greeted by the aroma of true New Orleans cuisine and many smiling faces. It felt so nice to see the family outside of the drywall blurred vision that we had become used to seeing them in. We were all so overwhelmed with the kindness that they showed us and it made our weeks of hard work so worthwhile. I couldn’t believe that they were paying for all of us and buying us gifts when they were the ones who lost everything in Katrina.
Their display of appreciation was completely unnecessary. Through such tragic losses they still found ways to make our stay more comfortable. One of the sisters even sang “Let There Be Peace On Earth” a capella as we sat there realizing that peace is a much bigger idea than we had thought before coming on the trip. Meredith said that she and her husband, Robert, were going to come to Randolph-Macon for the next four years to see our graduations. We couldn’t believe that they would do something like this and it really meant a lot to us all. I couldn’t hold back the tears at that point and I wasn’t the only one. We gave hugs and took pictures and headed back to Gretna UMC to prepare for one more day of work. This was by far the best night in New Orleans and probably one of the best of my life. That family will stay in my heart forever and I hope that they, as well as all the other families, get their lives back together and never have to experience this again.
Before the trip I valued things that could be taken away in the blink of an eye. I bought pink gloves and a matching pink hammer as I prepared for this trip into the unknown. I was nervous at the fact we were going to be getting really dirty while we were there. I thought that because the families that we were going to help lived in lower income areas they would be lazy and unappreciative. What I learned in New Orleans was much more than the destructive nature of nature, more than the incredible fortitude of the human spirit, and more than anything I had ever expected to gain from these two weeks. All of my inhibitions were wrong. My pink hammer turned grey as much of my skin and hair did every day, and I loved it. The families that we helped were families that would live on my street, not the lazy or unappreciative characters that I saw on the evening news. I went into this trip thinking I was going to be helping other people when the reality of it is that they helped me. They gave me what I needed to realize that everyone in this country is the same and deserves the same chances as everyone else. My twenty-nine classmates, three professors, and I left, not only as a family with each other, but with an extended family that is proud to call their home, New Orleans.
* * *
After being back home for over two months I have realized just how big of a role my trip to New Orleans plays in my life. I no longer look at myself as someone who only watches things get done. I do them. I no longer look at the news and become disinterested with things happening in poverty stricken areas because in order for the world to continue to grow, we all have to help each other. It shouldn’t matter what color our skin is, what our yearly income is, or how many square feet our houses are. This trip helped me, as well as many of my classmates realize this and the experience is something I will never forget.