13 July 2007

My Day as a Laborer

About 70 of us boarded buses in front of the Convention Center at 6:45 this morning to go spend the day volunteering with New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity.

All Habitat projects are wonderful, but I especially liked that we were in the Musicians' Village:

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita forced many musicians to flee New Orleans. Jazz, blues, and other genres that are the city's musical score, cannot return until the musicians return, and many have lost their homes. Habitat for Humanity International and New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity, working with Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis, honorary chairs of Operation Home Delivery, seek to change this. Plans were announced Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2005 for a "Musicians' Village."

The Musicians' Village, conceived by Connick and Marsalis, will consist of 70 single-family, Habitat-constructed homes for displaced New Orleans musicians and other qualifying Habitat partner families. Its centerpiece will be the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, dedicated to the education and development of homeowners and others who will live nearby. On January 9, 2006 NOAHH acquired eight acres of land in the Upper 9th Ward where the core area of the Musicians' Village will be located. In addition to the homes in this tract, plans call for building at least 150 other homes in the surrounding Upper 9th Ward neighborhood. Construction began in March 2006 and the first ten homeowners moved into thier new homes in August 2006.
The completed houses look great -- tidy three-bedroom homes painted in bright colors. We were working near some occupied homes and got to watch a boy playing with a puppy in a backyard -- a sight that shouldn't be so remarkable, but this was in a neighborhood that is still largely in ruins. Dogs and children are always a pick-me-up, but what a welcome sight here!

Most of us had darn little experience with construction. (I can't remember the last time I used a hammer to do more than hang a picture!) But the Habitat staff people explained what to do and we were able to make progress. One group was painting interiors in nearly complete houses. Most of us worked on the floor joists for a house that's just getting started. Even people with few skills can carry planks from here to there and then, with guidance, hammer them into place.

We all got hot, dirty, and tired, but had a good time together, and it was great to be able to do a little for these families that have lost so much.

Our bus driver enjoyed using his PA system to tell us about the neighborhoods we passed through. He took us a few blocks out of the way on the way home to show us one of the places where a levee was broken (the one that a barge barged into). In a two-block band near the Industrial Canal, there was just scrub, grass, and the remnants of foundations where once there was a neighborhood. The bus driver used to drive a city bus there, picking up children going to school and adults going to work. His connection made the loss more personal.

I'm really thankful to the people (the SR-SIS, SIS Council, and AALL Headquarters) who arranged for community service opportunities. What a great idea!

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