I recently returned from a memorable volunteer trip to New Orleans. Larry Weiss is one of those responsible for putting it together. Weiss and David Goodman were the heart-and-brains behind bringing the first group of Northern New Jersey volunteers, back in 2006. Welcome to OpEdNews, Larry. Can you tell our readers about how that first trip came about?
It was about six months after Katrina; I was watching a report on
the news about the storm aftermath and could not believe what the situation on
the ground still was. I felt compelled to try and help beyond the donation that
I had previously made. I contacted my local UJA [Jewish Federation] and told
them that I wanted to organize a volunteer trip to the Gulf region. I was told
that David Goodman had shown a similar interest and, since we knew each other,
perhaps we should chat.
During our conversation, we realized that we had our own connections to New Orleans. David was a Tulane alum and my first job after college was in New Orleans. I lived there for about two years and it was during that time that I also got married. They city held many fond memories for me. It was where I was truly on my own for the first time in my life. Where I had my first "grown up" apartment and had a real job. I loved the food and the music. It was also a great place for two newlyweds with absolutely no money to enjoy free entertainment on just about every corner and where we could get a cup of coffee and split an order of beignets at Cafe' Du Monde for less than $3.00!
As David and I exchanged stories about life in the Deep South for two Jersey guys and all that went along with that experience both good and not so good, we decided to pursue our goal of bringing a group to the region to get dirty and to help. We put the idea out by word of mouth and, with the logistical support of our local Jewish Federation, we were able to attract a group of 17 volunteers.
The trip came together and we decided to spend three days there with several
different groups. After we set the dates, we realized that we would be in New
Orleans doing our service on the 5th anniversary on 9/11. Our plan was to have
the group arrive on a Sunday morning. We would meet them at the airport and
head out on a tour of the city and the area. Of course, we felt it would be
best to arrive the day before to tie up loose ends and to take in what the city
had to offer. I found out that The Rebirth Brass Band was playing their first
show since Katrina at Tipitina's, a jazz venue in New Orleans. A homecoming
that we had to attend and we did.
After all, part of helping out also involves supporting the local economy!
We spent that first trip clearing yards, hauling trash, separating toxic from non-toxic debris, listening to stories, and providing comfort. We also spent one day in Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi, digging trenches in what was to be a new playground and community center. This activity took place on 9/11 and when word spread that a group of volunteers from the New York area were in town to help out, a local news crew came by and interviewed us for the nightly news. You know what Warhol said about everyone being famous for 15 minutes? Well, my 15 minutes came at a flooded-out playground in the sweltering heat of late summer in Gulfport and aired that night on WLOX.
painting bathroom at Camp Hope III, St. Bernard Parish, LA
After our return to JFK, David and I carpooled home. We didn't talk much on the ride. I think we were burned out, both by the physical as well as the emotional. As I dropped him off, David turned to me and simply said, "We did it!"
"Damn right, we did it," I replied. Little did I know it was just the beginning.
Shortly after we returned, word spread about our trip and we began to field inquiries about a return. When it appeared that we would have another group of about 26 volunteers, we put the wheels in motion again.
We have refined our model with each trip and have now brought almost 150 volunteers from North Jersey to New Orleans and the Gulf Region. We have worked with food pantries, community groups, dedicated a playground, helped to build a community center, painted houses, hung insulation, framed out the front of a house in the Musician's Village, nailed and taped sheetrock, laid flooring, mowed lawns, and cleared brush and trash, to name some of our accomplishments. We have heard stories and listened, we have consoled, comforted and hugged strangers and we have cried with them.