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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Of mice, work gloves, and Snapchat: a newbie's volunteer travel experience

I've been working for Volunteer Expeditions for over a year. As the Director of Communications, I handle all of our marketing and outreach. I was well informed on how our trips to New Orleans work. I knew the important names - Paul, Pastor Bruce, Warrenetta, and so on. I knew the regular volunteer opportunities - Second Harvest, The Lower 9th Ward Village, The St. Bernard Project, and more. And I knew the basics of our trips - volunteer opportunities, a tour of the Katrina and flooding devastation, free time in the French Quarter, dinner and bowling at Rock 'n' Bowl, etc.

But knowing the names is very different from being there.

I was thrilled to find out I was going on my first Volunteer Expeditions trip to New Orleans. Originally, I was to lead three groups from the East Coast, but three turned into a slightly smaller two due to Superstorm Sandy. After a bit of scrambling, we were re-set to go.

All 28 volunteers and three chaperones flew out and arrived at the hotel with only one lost wallet and one almost-left-behind suitcase. As I settled into my room that first night, I barely slept. It's so cruel that being overtired and anxious keeps you awake. And I'll admit it - I was worried about the trip throughout that sleepless night. I had never been to New Orleans before! What was I doing leading thirty people through it?

Morning came, and with it came sanity. I knew what I was doing. I had a carefully laid-out itinerary for the volunteers, and I had created my own itinerary with precisely where we were going, who I needed to talk to, and any and all contact information for every single stop on the trip. I'd been over the whole thing a few times with Patti, plus Ivy and the rabbi (the leaders of the two groups) were well-prepared themselves. This was going to work.

And you know what? I was right. That morning (after an enlightening speaker with a sleepy audience) we kicked our volunteering off with sorting food donations at Second Harvest...and it was a blast. Mr. Charles was a great leader, the work was fun, music made everyone dance, and we did a good thing for hundreds of hungry people. And you can't argue with Piccadilly Cafe for lunch. Real Southern food. One entree + two side dishes + dessert + soft drink = 28 gleefully stuffed teenagers.

After a stop at beautiful Audobon Park (beware the fire ants) and admiration of trees covered in beads from Mardi Gras nine months ago, we partook in Shabbat services, ate a lovely meal, and listened to an experienced architect discuss the rebuilding process. More than one young woman perked up on hearing he'd met Brad Pitt by working for the Make It Right foundation.

Clearing a new lot
Saturday was unforgettable. We met the lovely Warrenetta (how wonderful to put a face to the name!) and were loosed to help in various ways to rebuild the Lower 9th Ward. The main task of the day was helping Miss Polly paint her house and clear her backyard. When the gate was first opened into the yard, my first thought was, It's a jungle. I didn't see a way to actually step inside amidst the overgrowth, let alone start clearing it.

But clear it we did. By the end of the day, you could easily maneuver throughout most of the yard and we had pulled out several industrial garbage bags worth of trash. Not to mention two laundry baskets worth of ancient deep red bottles that looked better suited to a pirate ship. After an enlightening tour with another sleepy audience, everyone was rewarded for their hard work with a deep-fried dinner and bowling.

The next morning was one we would never forget - services at an African-American church in the Lower 9th. By the end, our volunteers were on their feet and clapping along like they were members.

We toured Tulane with the help of another chaperone (a college student who a few of our high schoolers were big fans of), had lunch, and split up for free time in the French Quarter. All I can say is that beignets at Cafe Du Monde are the best things I have ever eaten in my entire life. My tablemates might agree.

We spent that evening at St. John's with Pastor Bruce (not Father John). Many of us made new best friends with the young children in the church community. I had my hair done by Pastor Bruce's children. The experience was truly eye-opening for our volunteers, who are lucky enough to have never before visited "the hood", as Pastor Bruce declared.

The next morning we made the discovery that most of the volunteers are not meant for a farmer's life. I was very impressed with the work happening at Our School at Blair Grocery - and now we will all have a better appreciation for the hard work involved in getting arugula onto our plates! Although the experience was difficult for many, there were smiles all around by the time we arrived at our final stop...because who doesn't enjoy Mardi Gras World?

I think I can best explain the ties made and the bonds forged in this trip by sharing one last story. When we arrived at the airport, no goodbyes were made before we split off to our different check-in desks. MSY is a small airport, and we all wanted to get going. We figured we could say goodbye while waiting at the gates. But once we were through, we made a horrible realization - one group was in terminal C with me, but the other was in terminal D. There are no hallways between terminals. I had resigned myself to texting goodbye, but that wasn't good enough for our volunteers. A number of the group I was with proceeded to leave our terminal back through security, then wait in line to go through the other terminal's security to say goodbye before returning through their own security again.
Sad faces saying goodbye

Let me say that again: our volunteers put themselves through airport security two extra times just to say goodbye to their newfound friends.

We shared meals, stories, tools, sweat, and photos. But the most important things we shared were the memories made. It sounds cheesy, I know, but when I look back on this trip ten years from now, I'm going to remember running around the airport with Cammy, Pammy, Joey, and Sam. I'm going to remember eating lunch with Nicki, Didi, Mira, and Lev. I'm going to remember bowling with Jamie, Ilana, and Hannah. I'm going to remember Andie getting her palm read while Hailey, Noah, and Matt observed. I'm going to remember being amazed by the red bottles in Miss Polly's yard with Samantha. I'm going to remember shouting "woo!" with Zach every time we filled a box of food donations.

Making the decision to go through security again to say goodbye was a piece of cake for me too.