For the past three days, our group of twelve from Hillel at Davis and Sacramento has been working on a house at 922 Forstall in the Holy Cross neighborhood of St. Bernard Parish where a lot of the flooding occurred. Our homeowner is named Doreatha Pierson. She is an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s and her granddaughter takes care of her when not at school. The house is one of the few in the neighborhood that has a second story and it was used for refuge by some neighbors during the hurricane. One of the reasons Doreatha has had such a hard time rebuilding her house was that when she returned from evacuation in Georgia, she was a victim of contractor fraud and theft. We haven’t had a chance to meet her, but we’ve been told that she is grateful for our help.
On Monday, the house only had the most basic interior structure with bare walls and cement floors. It was so cold when we got there we played human knot to keep warm and bond with our group.
We started by cleaning out the rooms, painting walls and ceilings and scraping the floors to make an even surface to prepare for flooring. Then we laid down tar paper in the rooms to prevent humidity from rotting the floorboards. Some people in our group got creative with the tar paper and were able to insert some of their personality into repairing the house.
The following day we started putting in tile and bamboo floorboards which required a lot of precision and patience.
We also painted the outside steps with sand in the paint to prevent someone from slipping on the steps. Although the work is tiring, our experience here has been rewarding, especially when a stranger from the neighborhood stopped by to thank us for our efforts.
At this point, we feel like we’ve made a lot of progress. It’s amazing to see the transformation in such a short time and it made us realize how a few volunteers can make a big difference in the recovery effort.
Our house captain, Andy, handyman, Bart, and our hardworking, motivational Hillel leader, Maiya, all have a great sense of humor and have taught us many new skills while being patient with our lack of experience.
This attitude of patience reflects how Doreatha and hundreds of New Orleans residents have waited for help to recover from Katrina for five long years and many more are still waiting for help to return to their homes.
The Hillel groups have been discussing the work we are doing and reasons we came to New Orleans and how this relates to the Jewish vales and laws. We found the conflict between the command of the Torah telling us to help those in our hometown before helping those in other cities interesting because we feel that it is important to be in New Orleans fulfilling the commandment of Tzedakah, or restoring social justice.
These discussions have inspired many of our volunteers to seek other opportunities to help the Davis community.
Our worksite is fairly isolated from locals because we’re there during working hours, so we took the chance to experience the vibrant local culture. This helped us get a sense of what inspires people to keep working at the restoration effort and encourage residents to return to this city full of live music, divers and easy going attitudes toward life and hope for what the future will bring to transform the city.