Five years later, New Orleans relies on volunteer groups
Although natural disasters like the earthquake in Haiti and the BP oil spill have taken up much of today’s headlines, a tragedy closer to home still has yet to be resolved. While Hurricane Katrina may have struck New Orleans five years ago, volunteers are still making their pilgrimages to the city with the hopes of returning it to its former glory. Yet, are these volunteers making a significant impact?
Many high schools, colleges, churches and other organizations send representatives to help repair and rebuild homes, but the progress does not seem to be as rapid as one would hope. Schools and establishments have yet to reopen, and much of the Lower 9th and 7th Wards remain abandoned. What actions need to be taken to restore the full prosperity of New Orleans? Do the students and organizations that volunteer their help make headway, or do they hinder progress because of their lack of skills or materials? Furthermore, what can be said about our country and our government if the city of New Orleans is relying primarily on the benevolence of high school and college students?
Like many colleges, Ithaca College has organizations that travel to New Orleans, such as the Park Scholar program and Alternative Spring Break, but to what extent can these groups make an impact? Additionally, a new IC organization started this year, Audrey’s House, focuses on advocating for the continuation of reconstruction in New Orleans. They plan to eventually travel there to pitch in. IC sophomore Danielle Prizzi, treasurer of Audrey’s House, is confident in the passion of students themselves but questions the lack of progress being made. Prizzi traveled with the Alternative Spring Break trip in March of 2010 and, along with fellow ASB participant and now-secretary Qina Liu, was inspired to formulate Audrey’s House at IC.
“We really wanted to do more,” she said about the weeklong trip with ASB, continuing, “If you’re that type of person, you go down there and you’re never satisfied with the work that is done. You always want to do more.” Clearly, students are eager to help rebuild and construct, but without the necessary skills, the desire to help is weakened by the larger concern of lack of experience.
“We were just a bunch of college students who wanted to help, but really didn’t know what we were doing. Luckily, we had a few members who had done Habitat for Humanity before,” Prizzi said. “But we didn’t have any professionals helping us.”
On a construction site, building experience is universally agreed to be a significant factor in the work that gets completed. Liu said, “The majority of the students who go down there don’t have any building experience, even me. This was the first time I worked on a house in this way.” However, lack of building experience was not always a hindrance to the project at hand.
Luke Elmers, Ithaca College alum ’10, acknowledges that experience is helpful, but not a necessary tool in order to help. Elmers traveled to New Orleans in January of this year as part of the Park Scholar program curriculum.
He said, “While I have found that having past experience with building and construction can be useful, it is far more important to have the right attitude about why you’re there,” he said. “You’re not there on a vacation. You’re not there to party in New Orleans. You’re not there to relax. You’re there to help those in need, and that’s hard work. But anybody with the right heart and the right attitude can participate. That’s what matters most.”
Students reported an absence of resources as a difficulty on trips as well. Tools, finances and amount of volunteers are all factors of service work that can positively or negatively affect the process being made. Prizzi strongly believes that a lack of experienced people is the culprit.
“I’ve talked to people living in the 7th Ward, and they told me that they are depending on college students and volunteers to rebuild New Orleans, and that statement really bothers me,” she said. “It bothers me that this issue is depending on the youth generation, the wealthy youth generation, to come down and fix this problem.”
Refugees of Hurricane Katrina are relying on the work of students, and it causes one to pause to think that without their work, the progress of New Orleans could be at a standstill.
Although there are formal organizations such as The Make It Right NOLA Foundation, the brunt of the work being completed in New Orleans is by students and volunteer groups. As a result, the progress that can be done in New Orleans is hindered by the fact that teenagers with limited resources are the only source of help that the victims of the tragedy are getting.
Furthermore, when larger organizations do help, they often simply throw money at the cause and don’t see that they aren’t in fact helping individual people.
“Some damaged housing projects across the street from where we were working got torn down,” Elmers said. “And they were building these beautiful, townhouse-style condominiums in their place. The problem is that the people who were living in those projects to begin with couldn’t afford to live in the new townhouses, so what were they to do? They were essentially displaced and forced to find another home. I’m sure whoever built the new homes had nothing but the best intentions, but because they didn’t consult the community about what would be most useful, they’re doing little to actually move New Orleans forward.”
In other words, it is important for volunteers and organizations to understand how their work is helping the cause, rather than simply building for the sake of it.
So what can be done to drastically improve the conditions of the city and the lives of the inhabitants of New Orleans? While many suggest the need for governmental involvement, others fear that this would continue the cycle of helping the cause but not the individuals themselves. It is important to remember that the destruction of New Orleans should not simply be repaired for the sake of it, but for the individuals who live there, which is why the expensive homes that are constructed by these foundations do not reach the heart of the issue.
It is important to understand that the volunteers who attend these trips are given an overwhelming task that cannot be accomplished in a single spring break trip. Therefore, people should continue to bring awareness to the issue of New Orleans, so as to remind others that the issue is not over or “fixed.”
Until more volunteers come who have serious building experience, and until people listen to the voices of the community and respect their wishes, the progress in New Orleans will remain stagnant. Students seem to be the main source of help, and this is unlikely to change, which is why they must do all they can in order to bring awareness and help the victims of Hurricane Katrina the right way, rather than the easy way. The only way for this issue to be improved is for people to, as Elmers firmly states, “turn off their televisions, leave the comfort of their homes, and go see for themselves. There is still work to be done… It is far from over.”
***Due to some inaccuracies, this article has been modified since its original posting online on Wednesday, October 13.***