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Focus on New Orleans: Local Teen Wields Camera For Good

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My guest today is Jen Menard, photographer for St. Bernard Project. Welcome to OpEdNews, Jen. How did you get this job?

After I graduated from high school in May, I was looking for a way to help people. My dad happens to be on the Board of Directors for the St. Bernard Project, and encouraged me to look into the organization. I ended up volunteering to photograph the 24-Hour Rebuild event the project was having on the four year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and after that experience I knew I wanted to do more to help. A few weeks later, I began volunteering full-time for the project, and starting at the end of December, I will be working for the project on staff full-time for the next semester.

Living through Katrina changed your life and your very specific college plans. Can you tell our readers about that?

When Katrina hit, I had just started my freshman year of high school. I was being home schooled so I could attend an art conservatory studying violin, and had my sights set on making that my career. I was making a list of all the college conservatories I was going to audition for as a performance major, and going to spend all of my high school years in preparation for those important auditions. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, I continued attending the conservatory half-heartedly (at satellite sites for some of that time, because our school building had damage) because I had a huge shift in priorities and felt like the career path I was pursuing wasn't what I needed to be doing, but I wasn't sure what i DID need to be doing.

My sophomore year at the conservatory, I got tendonitis in my arm disabling me from playing violin for a few months, and I did not return to the conservatory my junior year. Senior year, I was able to play violin again, and after getting accepted back into the school, I dropped out after the first two weeks, because I knew I needed to be doing something more. I began serving at a homeless shelter every week and doing different things around the community, and then I ended up at the St. Bernard Project.

I forgot to add - during all that time even when I wasn't at the art high school, I kept playing violin in a non-profit orchestra -- the Greater New Orleans Youth Orchestra and had an opportunity to play in Carnegie Hall with them this summer. That was a wonderful experience, and brought a lot of attention to New Orleans and how we are rebuilding but also still have work to be done. It was very inspiring.


Very cool about Carnegie Hall! So, what do you see ahead after this year at the St. Bernard Project?

I most likely will attend college next fall and study to become a counselor. I turned 18 in August. (Sorry for the late reply; we were all stressing for the past few days because it looked like Hurricane Ida was gonna hit us.) My counselor helped me a lot, and I feel like that is another way I can give back. I'm not sure exactly what is in store for me, but you know that quote, "Be the change you want to see in the world" by Mahatma Gandhi? I want to keep living that out.


Good for you! I think you'll make a great counselor.What have you seen in your work as a photographer at the St. Bernard Project?

I've seen a lot at the project. All of the volunteers who come through here are great people. It is awesome to see folks from a variety of careers and backgrounds and ages come together to work on a house together. Strangers become friends, and no one leaves unchanged. I've never met any one who has worked with the project that, when they were done for the week (or day), didn't want to go back home and spread the word about the work that still needed to be done here.


Jen and grandchild of SBP client by Jen Menard

As far as our actual clients, these are people who are still not back into their homes four years later. Their life has been standing still while the rest of the world moves on and forgets. They are the strongest people i've ever met. I've attached two photographs in this e-mail that I have taken of some of our home owners. The first is of the Verdon family. They have not only been through Hurricane Katrina, but some traumatic accidents afterwards, and yet they still have a sense of humor and are incredibly sweet (as you can see by their picture).

I always look forward to stopping by their home that we are in the process of rebuilding. The second photograph is of Doris Hauck, and her daughter Suzanne. (This is the family whose house you worked on when you were here). Doris is the primary caretaker of her daughter, who suffers from Down's syndrome. They haven't lived in their home for the past four years either, but still, they are some of the most optimistic ladies you will ever meet. Doris has such a good attitude about everything. Every time i meet one of our clients, I am humbled, they have all been through so much and are still dealing with the aftermath of Katrina, yet they have the most wonderful attitudes about it all, and they seem to have everything into perspective, as far as what really matters. They are beautiful people. There is no other feeling like the one I get when i see a family cut the yellow ribbon at their welcome home party. Four years later, and they are finally moving back home.

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families rebuilding, St. Bernard Project, 2009
by Jen Menard

If someone wanted to help your project from their armchair, what could they do?

What we really need is people to keep spreading the word. It is important that people are aware of what is going on down here. If someone wanted to get even more involved but still stay where they are, another option would be hosting a fundraising party. We've had people host auctions and dinners and a variety of other events for their friends, families, coworkers, etc., to raise funding and awareness about the St. Bernard Project and what we are doing.

***

Before we were done, Jen completed her stint at St. Bernard Project. Spending a day there a few weeks ago renewed my interest in tying up those loose ends but I wasn't able to find Jen. Facebook allowed us to reconnect; here's the postscript to our interview.
What have you been up to since we spoke last spring, Jen?

After leaving SBP May 1st, I spent the summer traveling -- a much needed break. Currently, I'm attending LSU as a freshman, majoring in Communication Disorders (like speech therapy). I decided the counseling route wasn't for me.
I chose to major in Communication Disorders because I will be able to help children and adults with special needs, learning disorders or that have been through trauma and need to learn how to speak again. Also, photography was kind of on the back burner for the first few months of college, but now it is in full swing again (spending my Thanksgiving break doing nine photoshoots), as well as a few personal projects.

Can you talk a little now, with some perspective and distance, about SBP and/or Katrina?

My time working with SBP was life-altering. I gained a lot of experience and new skills, and met a lot of great people. It's something I will never regret. But, now it's time to move on.

I get that; I really do. Here is a sample of what Jen is up to these days, between classes at LSU.

Baby J, November, 2010, Guffawchild.blogspot.com


Jen: you're a talented photographer with a big heart. Good luck to you!

***

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)
 

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