Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Day 3 - Community Service Project in New Orleans

As we drove through New Orleans yesterday morning I experienced an odd sense of culture shock. It was hard to come to terms with seeing poverty like this in America. I felt like I was back in war-torn Bosnia, with one exception.....When I was in Bosnia people continually wanted to tell me about how they loved America -- how President Clinton had sent help and supplies during the war and how indebted they were to Americans now.

Eager as they were, the citizens of New Orleans had a slightly different story to share.


Our morning in New Orleans was spent volunteering at St Bernard Community Center in the 9th Ward, the only county ever to be declared 100% destroyed in a natural disaster. Stephen, a local activist, said the first ones to come to their aid after the levee broke were the Canadian Mounted Police from Vancouver, British Columbia -- they arrived the Monday after the storm. The German Search and Rescue team arrived the next day, searching for cadavres, tying them to telephone poles so that they could find them when they came back to collect the bodies.

The U.S. National Guard didn't arrive in New Orleans until four days after the storm. When they did arrive, they didn't even bother to go into St Bernard, assuming there were no survivors in New Orleans' most hard-hit area.

As four of my 40/40 team members and I unpacked and rinsed off janitorial supplies that had been donated to the center, Stephen came back and interrupted us several times with different stories -- about everything from life in New Orleans to his world travels during his time in the Navy -- keeping us from making progress with our task. My first reaction was, "how are we ever going to get anything done?" But as he spoke, as his passion for service revealed itself, I began to see that my real purpose there wasn't to scan inventory into the system, my five hours of casual work wouldn't make that much of a difference; I was there to lend an ear and be a witness. I was there to share in the joys and struggles of a community that felt forgotten.


Emile, a respectable, retired Philippino gentleman, lost his wife to breast cancer a few months before Katrina hit. The majority of his time is now spent taking care of his older brother, Joe, and cooking a hot lunch for the poverty-stricken guests at St Bernard's Community Center every Tuesday. When I asked him what motivates him to give so much of his time to helping others, he explained that he is retired and has extra time. He wisely put away savings during his career, and has a very modest lifestyle with just basic monthly utility bills; his homeowner's insurance kicked in after Katrina so he was able to fix up his house for only $50,000. His biggest hardship is losing his wife, being lonely, so he "spends [his] days serving others. It doesn't give [him] time to think about being alone until late at night when [he is] in bed." He said that he doesn't have it bad off so why shouldn't he help some others?

I was so touched by Emile and his heart of gold because, though he had money, his lifestyle didn't at all reflect the lifestyle of most people with similar incomes. He didn't value new boats, caviar and nice restaurants, a manicured garden, or anything that most of us strive to obtain through money. Emile was content with just enough food to sustain himself, a dry place to lay his head, and a modest means of transportation. Emile wore bleach-stained, crusty, well-worn mocassins, blue jeans, and an obviously lived-in plaid button-up; he was concerned with the well-being of his neighbors more than his own comfort. I couldn't help but think, "The fact that I am amazed by Emile's constant acts of generosity is a sign that I myself am far from being selfless in the same way." Even though poverty isn't present in my everyday tasks, how often do I choose to go to ice cream or a movie instead of heading down to the local rescue mission to help young, impoverished children with their homework?

Just last week I wrote an essay: Defining the Patriotic American Citizen. In my essay I talked about "giving back to the community" being one of the key elements of a good citizen. I said I was raised to value community service and had participated in community projects throughout my youth; I consider myself a good citizen. But somewhere throughout the past few years community service has become less and less of a priority, I've put it on the back burner, after school, work, and entertainment.

How will my priorities change after discovering America?


  1. Your final question is such a fascinating one, Shirah... Thanks for this post! (Easier than the French one...)

  2. I'm glad you liked it, Bonnie. I think we've kind of found a groove for blogging - we discuss the day's adventures and experiences every night, and some people go ahead and blog then. But for me I need some time to process everything before I write, so I thinks I'll be consistently a day behind in blogging.

    PS - the post in French was just explaining the trip, our goal, and some of the logistics for my friends and family who love getting my blogs and the pictures, but don't speak English fluently. I always try to include them whenever I can!
    So that's all-no new information you're missing out on :)

  3. I voted for Bush twice. I'm so glad he was President on 9/11. BUT he really blew it when it came to handling the response to Katrina. Shameful. We're the richest nation on earth & we didn't immediately send some federal help down there. They said it was because the Louisiana governor didn't officially ask for it sooner...Yes, she was incompetent and so was Mayor Nagen. But too bad. Bush was Commander in Chief. He FLEW over the area where bodies were floating in the flooded streets. Very sad.

  4. You're right, it's terribly sad. And what makes it all worse it that our government sends millions of dollars of aid to foreign countries every year, seemingly forgetful of the fact that there are people here in just as bad a situation.
    I realize that they've established food stamp programs and such, but when your entire home and all your possessions have been swept away, you're going to need a lot more than food stamps to get back on your feet.

    These comments might make it sound like I'm for bigger government, more centralized power. I'm not. I just think that as long as our government is going to give away mass amounts of money in charity, (which they do), they should make their own citizens a big priority.


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