Building homes & connecting hearts in New Orleans

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Students help rebuild homes and connect hearts in New Orleans

It was a late August morning, shortly after dawn, when their lives were forever changed.

Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast of the United States just after 6 a.m. on August 29, OHS students build houses in New Orleans2005 packing sustained winds of up to 140 miles per hour. When the storm surge arrived several hours later, it overwhelmed many of the city’s levees and drainage canals. Levee breaches and collapsed floodwalls created violent currents and catastrophic flooding that washed away many homes and stranded residents on the rooftops of others. 

Hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama fled their homes for refuge before the hurricane made landfall, and others who stayed behind retreated to local emergency shelters in hard-hit areas like New Orleans. They formed long lines for a meal and a cot to lay their head on at places like the Louisiana Superdome.

Though about half of the city lies above sea level, its average elevation is about six feet below sea level and is completely surrounded by water. Hurricane Katrina showed no mercy, plunging nearly 80 percent of the city under some level of water. Some of the worst flooding in New Orleans occurred in low-lying places like St. Bernard Parish and the Ninth Ward, where many of the evacuees lost all but the belongings they carried with them to higher ground. 

After nearly 13 years of rebuilding efforts, many people who fled areas pummeled by Katrina have returned home and are making great strides at returning to life as they knew it in cities steeped in history and pride. Communities reduced to rubble have been replaced with homes and neighborhoods filled with children playing in yards and attending local schools.

Yet even with all of the progress, signs of destruction, such as concrete steps that once led to a family’s home but now stand oddly alone on a vacant lot, are reminders there is still work to do.

The rebuilding effort continues today by volunteer organizations and individuals from throughout the country who are donating their time to make homes in the Gulf Coast habitable again. 

Olympia High School students are among those who have responded to the calls for help.

Helping to bring people home

For each of the past four years, about 30 Olympia High School students have spent their weeklong OHS Students build houses in New Orleansspring break helping to rebuild and repair homes in New Orleans.

The annual trips are coordinated by Shirts Across America, one of many non-profit organizations across the country working to restore areas still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Katrina. The Seattle-based group partners with national organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and with groups based in New Orleans, like the St. Bernard Project.

Shirts Across America Founder and Executive Director Randy Novak said it is the passion and generosity of people like Olympia High School students that are making a difference in the success of the rebuilding work. Since its founding in 2008, Shirts Across America has sent more than 2,700 volunteers to New Orleans and Mississippi and worked on more than 150 homes or projects in the Gulf Coast region. 

“Young adults today want to be part of the solution and know they are making a difference,” Novak said.

Students and adult chaperones, including parents and high school staff, pay approximately $1,300 each to cover the cost of airfare, lodging and meals for the week; however, scholarships and fundraising opportunities make the trip possible for any student with a desire to serve.

Students reflect on giving back

During their first visit to New Orleans in 2015, the Olympia High School group was made up largely of OHS Students donating their time to Habitat for Humanitystudents in the Students Together Advocating Non-Violence and Diversity (STAND) campus club. The student group has been especially active over the years on issues related to social justice. As word about the project has spread, so has participation from throughout the school.

Graduating senior Alice Tammetta went to New Orleans all four years of high school and called it “life-changing.” She and her classmates learned a variety of homebuilding and repair skills including caulking, sawing, painting and drywall mudding, as well as how to install insulation.

“I remember getting covered in mudding, which was crusted over by the end of the day in my hair and fingernails,” Tammetta said. Mudding involves spreading a paste with a spatula into cracks or flaws in a wall, which are then sanded and smoothed. 

During tours of the city, Tammetta said the reality and gravity of the hurricane destruction hit home. She recalled seeing blue posts in the lower Ninth Ward that marked the water levels during the 2005 storm surge. In some places, water levels exceeded 25 feet above sea level. 

“I would do anything to help these people,” the teen said. “They are completely innocent in this situation. They had their homes taken away from them. It’s unimaginable. They are so resilient and grateful, and that makes me even happier knowing I am helping them.”

While on job sites, and often in conversations with neighbors, students heard heart-wrenching stories about how some residents fell victim to scammers who billed themselves as contractors, only to take the homeowner’s money and disappear without completing any repairs.

Sarah Gindy, who graduated in June, spent three of her high school spring breaks in New Orleans. One of those years, she was assigned as a Core Team Student Leader. On the trips, students are broken up into teams of five to seven people. Each team has a Core Team Student Leader, an Adult Team Lead, and three to four student volunteers. Student leaders plan events, recruit other students to go on the trip, plan community service opportunities and develop leadership skills.

“My first year we helped rebuild a house that was destroyed,” Gindy said. “The contractor that a woman had paid had taken the money and run. It was a single mother of two children, one in college and one an infant. She was in a really tough situation, and it felt good to help get her back on her feet.”

Asked about the most memorable moments of the two trips he has taken to New Orleans, graduating senior Imani Mabwa-Childress paused for a moment, searched for an answer and said, “there is so much.” He shared how on one visit he helped prepare food for boxed lunches to serve to students in the public school system. On another visit, he recalled helping with a house rebuild by cutting siding and installing a new roof. “It’s cool to see how much progress was made on a house to help someone out with their troubles after the hurricane,” he said.

Experiencing New Orleans history and culture

After a long day at the work sites, Shirts Across America makes sure time is set aside for students and their chaperones to experience the history and richness of the New Orleans culture.

There are opportunities to eat traditional New Orleans food such as Po-Boys (overstuffed sandwiches OHS Students celebrate completion of the house they builtserved on French bread), jambalaya, crawfish, and beignets; listen and dance to authentic jazz music; attend a Sunday church service; visit the French Quarter; and tour a former sugar plantation.

On the Whitney Plantation, students gain a unique perspective on the lives of Louisiana’s enslaved people on an 1830s sugar plantation through museum exhibits, memorial artwork, restored buildings and hundreds of first-person slave narratives.

“You learn about slavery in class, but it’s a whole different experience when you go there — it was really moving,” said Olivia Senna. The teen will be an Olympia High School senior this fall and is already planning to return next Spring.

Graduating senior Emi Grant added, “The Whitney Plantation is a really insightful experience, and really hard. It focuses on children who were enslaved. It takes the words in history books right off the page.”

Cam Coleman, a former site supervisor with the St. Bernard Project and longtime New Orleans resident, knows the value of the students’ volunteerism. He grew up in New Orleans and was 12 years old when Hurricane Katrina ravaged his city. His mother brought the family to Texas, where they lived for close to a year before moving back to their rebuilt home.

“I had the opportunity to go home after the flood waters had receded, and it was completely devastating,” he said. “When I went inside our home, I saw that the water had lifted the fridge and it was laying horizontally on our counter. I touched the TV and it crumbled … the water had destroyed my home and my city.”

Coleman eventually became a site supervisor with the St. Bernard Project non-profit as a way to give back to his community. He helped teach volunteers, including Olympia High School students, how to use tools safely — a job that later landed him a job with a power tool company in California.

“I would like to commend everyone, especially those from Olympia High School, for putting in their hands to help the city,” he said.

Forever changed

Olympia High School Principal Matt Grant, who has chaperoned three of the four trips to New Orleans, said there is a noticeable change among many students after they return from the experience.

“I have seen students who want to take more action in their own community and get more involved with social justice issues. They also become more interested in thinking about race and class issues that are occurring today. I see students who want to make a difference in their community as a result.”

Olympia High Class of 2016 graduate Amber Crabb, among several who helped organize the school’s inaugural trip to New Orleans in 2015, was so moved by her experiences that she decided to spend her first year of college at Loyola University in Louisiana. “After I went on two trips there, I really fell in love with the city,” she said. “I loved the volunteer work and wanted to continue to be a part of that.”

Crabb continued to help build houses during her first year of college. She moved back to Washington last year after changing her major to environmental policy and being accepted at Western Washington University. She has continued to volunteer in the community, focusing on environmental restoration efforts.

“I am so proud of the people I worked with at Oly in getting the whole thing off the ground,” she said. “There is so much drive and ambition among Olympia High School students.”

Just like the New Orleans residents whose lives were forever changed on that late August day in 2005, so too has the volunteer rebuilding work changed the lives of Olympia High School students who have helped bring them home.