Up until five years ago New Orleans was just a name to me, but when media outlets began broadcasting that the gulf coast could be home to one of the worst hurricanes in the history my eyes became glued to the area that we’ve called home for the past week. Fast forward to just a few months ago when I first learned about this Hillel led trip. New Orleans is home to some ragin’ Cajun cuisine, a Mardi Gras celebration like none other and a great French and American history… what wouldn’t I like about this trip? Sure I’d be doing some volunteering down here and helping out, but the first thought in my head was, “How much more work could honestly still need to be done down here?” Boy could my initial thoughts be anywhere farther from what is the truth.
Pulling in on the train into New Orleans my eyes were met with brown lines on buildings I could only assume were water marks from flooding. Decrepit buildings and houses in shambles. I learned a new word, blight, described by Merriam-Webster dictionary as the deteriorated condition of an urban area; something many sections of New Orleans have a lot of. The message of pictures, videos and now what I’m truly seeing with my own eyes has hit home. It’s time to get down to business.
The first day of our work involved us doing what our leaders referred to as mold remediation. It involved scrubbing wood with dormant mold on it, shocking the mold with a chemical and killing it, then painting over it with a water protective paint all before a service comes in to smoke the building to make sure all the mold’s gone. Although I wasn’t able to help much more on the remediation project due to a newly discovered mold allergy, the rest of my group did the job. It’s rather amazing to figure that we barely finished our project with more than 20 people on the job, and that’s just one of thousands of buildings in great need of repair.
Throughout the week our group worked on various projects in and around New Orleans. I helped to get a community park ready for opening in St. Bernard Parish and worked to help retile a VFW ceiling in the city. I cleaned up trash from swamplands around Shell Beach and helped install sand and clay for the in-field on the new baseball field at George Washington Carver school complex in the Desire Area of New Orleans (sort of an odd name for the location considering the amount of blight [I love using new words] in that neighborhood).
While on the site of our last project, the project leader, a former high school teacher and New Orleans native made a comment that stuck out to me. In an effect to commend the work my group and I have done all week he mentioned he probably wouldn’t have come to my community and helped out in our time of need. Although that struck me as sort of a mean thing to say, the point he was trying to get across is that he is grateful that we have it in our hearts to do something that he probably wouldn’t have done.
I definitely understood that message, but it also made me think about my home community. I call east central Illinois home now. I live in a fraternity house there, go to school there, work there and intern there… I guess I’m an Illinoisan now. As a journalist I have the privilege and hard job to see many of the issues that face my community. I have only worked at my broadcasting internship for a little over a month. Through that time I’ve been able to see the immense amount of crime, education deficiencies, poverty and corruption that exists in my local community. And back to the train ride down here, the towns and cities we passed along the way through Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana were all pretty awful looking, portraying an immense amount of economic strife. The point is that New Orleans is not the only place that needs help. Not every community may need it as much as the New Orleans metro region, but poverty is a huge issue all across our country, something I believe kills what every U.S. citizen knows as the American Dream.
So what do I implore not only my fellow Jews but Americans to do? Give back to your communities. If we are able to help positively affect one person’s in our community it may give them the opportunities to one day also help someone else. It does not need to be in the form of money; money is scarce for everyone at this time. Confucius says, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Aspire to this knowledge and the world will hopefully be a better place.
Hillel ASB 2010 has been an experience that one cannot forget. Great friendships made in the name of giving back. What more could G-d ask for.