Monday, March 8, 2010

Monday, March 8 - Day 1: “The footprints might be covered by paint, but they’ll always be there.”

After sleeping in until the reasonable hour of 6 AM, Team Bojangles groggily fought for a few scrapes of peanut butter and bus seats in which to park our already-weary selves. The outskirts of the city, visible through the bus windows, gradually gave way to an assortment of homes uncertain upon their foundations. The bus dropped us off at a surprisingly chilly locale, where two young women from AmeriCorps (working for the St. Bernard project) were waiting brightly for us; they’d already been up for hours.

First, we got to know not only our leaders Sarah and Sophie but also the Doty House, our project for the week. Mrs. Doty, a widow, is the godmother of a girl whose family decided to leave New Orleans for Texas. As a result, their lot was for sale, and Mrs. Doty was able to sell the remains of her home (all but destroyed by the hurricane) and buy it. While we are reconstructing the home, Mrs. Doty and her teenage daughter are staying with family. If we hadn’t already, we realized how time-sensitive the reconstruction effort is.

Before learning how best to build a house, we had to learn how to build a house, period. Sarah and Sophie patiently took us through the process and our roles. After Katrina, many homeowners found that their homes were irreparable due to moldy frameworks, so a big part of St. Bernard Project and AmeriCorps’ building process is mold remediation so that areas can be used again. We would be taking up work in the drywall phase, with the house’s walls having already been insulated. Sarah and Sophie also discussed mudding, texturing, and paint, towards which we are working. Appreciating our own task was a challenge in itself. Despite the rad omnipresence of power tools, we were covered in a cloud of chalk dust before we ever touched an exacto-knife. Despite the struggles we greenhorns were sure to endure, we donned our traffic-cone orange work gloves and embarked upon hours of dusty labor.

Almost immediately, we learned that going through a briefing and successfully screwing in a screw doesn’t mean that we know what we’re doing. Bill and his partner, for instance, struggled to fit a large piece of drywall into a space; after going through the extensive cutting and sanding process three times, they finally succeeded. Lucky for us, our mishaps are already proving valuable. As Sarah said, “You learn through your mistakes. You’ll find that out quickly!”

During lunch, we learned that Sarah and Sophie are just out of high school – I was shocked. They were so self-sufficient and comfortable giving directions! In AmeriCorps, you grow up faster simply because you must. People ages 18-24 are expected to not only take care of themselves (which means regular early morning exercising and keeping order in 10-person homes) but groups of naïve volunteers like us. For one school year, they devote themselves to whichever service projects the government assigns them to and excel well enough to teach others. Our leaders had only been leading reconstruction efforts for two weeks, but their composed know-how belied inexperience.

Later, we took a trek to a bathroom in a finished version of a house like the one we are building. It was meaningful to have that vision as a goal for us to keep in mind for our labors. Also, we learned that Sophie is Jewish and can speak Hebrew – her mom is Israeli. We could connect with her not only as volunteers, but as Jewish volunteers. On our way back, a woman running through the neighborhood also caught my eye. I was surprised to see someone going about their life here, but I shouldn’t have been. New Orleans might have been devastated by Katrina, but it is still the same home it always has been to so many people, all trying to continue their lives as normally as possible.

The assortment of footprints on a wall left by Adam Yosim and Mark Abadi really struck me. In a process I usually think of as impersonal and regimented, the boys included a bit of their creative selves. I realized that houses don’t just happen- they are the results of the labor of real people. Every struggle I’d had with a screw while building the closet went into the heart of the house. Before anyone even lived there, it would have a story. As Adam Bush said in our meeting tonight, “The footprints might be covered by paint, but they’ll always be there.”

By the time the bus arrived, we novice builders had established full walls of drywall, all while listening to ‘90s throwback tunes courtesy of an aged radio. Tired and happy, we made our way back to campus for cold showers and naps.

All our best,
Hannah Weinberger, UNC-Chapel Hill Class of 2013
and the NC Hillel Alternative Spring Break delegation:
Bill Dworsky ('10), Shayna Bernstein ('13), Ariel Press ('13), Mark Abadi ('12), Danielle Litt ('10), Adam Bush ('12), Adam Yosim ('10), and Sheila Katz (Hillel Staff)

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