There’s a spirit in New Orleans that permeates all aspects of life. It’s an easy-going demeanor mixed with a penchant for good music, good food and good times and grounded by a deep pride and sense of community. It’s a vibe I’ve never felt anywhere else in the world and was incredibly evident to me and the 17 other Park Scholars that made the trip down to New Orleans at the end of Winter Break.
It was your standard student volunteer trip: one week and 18 kids with a few paint brushes and caulk guns, fixing up the exterior and interior of one man’s house in the Lower Ninth Ward. By the end of the week, the house had been transformed into a neat, clean and bright house that was ready for more advanced improvements we could not provide.
During our week there, we were told by several New Orleanians that our help was appreciated — not just at our work site. Cab drivers and restaurant patrons expressed their gratitude. Anyone who found out we were volunteers told us how much our work meant to them and the city. At first, those sentiments were tough to truly take to heart. It’s easy to think that it’s an almost knee-jerk reaction from all New Orleanians to just thank everyone that goes down there to help, and that in reality, my impact was very little. All I did was hold a paint brush and a caulk gun for a few hours a day, and now here I am back in Ithaca.
But like I said, New Orleanians are fiercely proud of their city, their home, in a way most people are not lucky enough to be. So when you take the time to enter their home and experience their culture, that gesture is very much appreciated.
So, I realized, our presence actually was important to the people of New Orleans. By coming into their home, and not just painting, caulking and cleaning but also eating their food, listening to their jazz and hearing their stories, we learned about their lives and what’s important to them. We were able to understand, if only for a little bit, what their city was, is and can be.
Those cab drivers and restaurant patrons were thanking us not for fixing up one man’s house but for engaging with the city of New Orleans on a personal level and feeling that spirit. And that’s the kind of thanks that is truly meaningful and will ensure that my connection to the city continues, even though I am back in Ithaca.
There is still pain in New Orleans. There are still massive sections of the city that are in desperate need of rebuilding, and thousands of people that have yet to return home. But that pain is tempered with great doses of hope and belief that the spirit of New Orleans will carry on. Because, as we learned during that week, that spirit lies within the people of New Orleans. People that are willing and eager to share their life and their home, even when their lives have been ripped apart and their homes have been washed away.
It’s because of those people that our experience was so incredibly memorable, and their gratitude for our time and efforts cannot compare to our gratitude to them for sharing their stories and their city.
To view an audio slide show of the scholars’ trip, visit theithacan.org.
Maura Gladys is a senior journalism major. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.