April 12, 2006
Local Kids Reach Out To Katrina Victims
The streets of New Orleans are littered with memories. Trophies left behind, abandoned in the grass. Photo albums, their images forever altered, wiped away forever by a wash of water that transformed a way of life for millions.
The New Orleans that students from The Ross School in East Hampton encountered on a recent two-week trip spent volunteering to help Hurricane Katrina victims was a study in contrasts. Students witnessed the horrors — neighborhoods completely flattened, erased entirely. Homes swept off their foundations, sitting on trucks and in the middle of the street. And yet, breaking through the clouds of despair and devastation, the students saw rays of sunshine — church choirs singing praises, neighbors working side-by-side to help one another transcend tragedy. Out of the ruins and rubble, there was hope.
For Mark Nelson, one of three faculty members at The Ross School, as well as for the 10 students and an adult volunteer who journeyed to New Orleans over the school's M term, a three-week period during which students are asked to step out into the world and broaden their horizons, the trip was a life-altering experience.
"I am still mightily saddened when I look at the images of the most hard-hit areas," said Nelson. "But I was completely inspired by the energy, the notion that people would come from throughout the country and simply devote themselves to a dirty task and to helping people they do not know just because the principle is right."
Each student paid an out-of-pocket expense of $1300 for the trip, covered by sponsors and fundraising efforts, with the balance contributed by parents.
"Posted around the school are the words 'Know thyself in order to serve,'" said Nelson. "We thought we should take that seriously and act upon it."
Once in New Orleans, the ninth graders and seniors split into groups and helped in a host of ways, serving in soup kitchens, unloading trucks and distributing food and supplies to Katrina victims, and gutting houses in an effort to make them habitable.
Nelson and older students worked primarily with a relief group, Common Ground, formed in the aftermath of the storm.
Common Ground's mission is to provide short-term relief for hurricane victims as well as long-term support in rebuilding communities in the New Orleans area.
"The organization redeemed my faith in humanity," said Nelson. "This reminded me of a post-Woodstock nation, of the United States in the era of selfless community action."
While younger students worked at a distribution center, older students and adults were called upon for a challenging task.
"It was the extraordinarily dirty and dangerous work of gutting the houses sitting in 10 feet of water," said Nelson. "The water was highly toxic, and had left behind extraordinary sludge. And when the water receded, toxic mold began to grow."
Undaunted, volunteers donned full body suits, respirators, gloves, boot covers, and goggles, and set about removing everything from the home and tearing down Sheetrock. Next, they helped decontaminate the frame of the building.
Nelson's group worked side-by-side with New Orleans resident Joe Ringo to save his home. "This was an invaluable experience for all of us, to work with someone whose home we were trying to salvage, and to hear his stories."
Ringo, who has lived in New Orleans since 1969, was in good spirits, "singing away." Ringo sang in his church choir, but all the churches were gone, so the congregation borrowed a building.
Student volunteers also worked with Second Harvest, a national group that redistributes food from farmers and food manufacturers, and with local artist Jana Napoli, helping to transport more than 600 abandoned dresser drawers for an exhibit she was organizing.
Highlights of the trip included attending a jazz mass at St. Augustine's Church, a house of worship devoted to African American and New Orleans' culture. Sadly, it was the last-ever service at the church, closed down by the Louisiana archdiocese, but students were able to hear three members of jazz great Wynton Marsalis's family perform. "For kids who had never been to an African-American service before, which was easily 75%, this was extraordinary," said Nelson.
Students spent time exploring the Lower Ninth Ward, hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina. "It was very, very sobering and disturbing — a very potent experience," said Nelson.
Albert Goncalves, a Ross School senior and Springs resident, said the experience changed his life. "Just walking around is incredible. It's hard to imagine how many lives were just swept away."
And, once home, the trip made him think: "You realize what you take for granted, and the value of life." Goncalves has been "thinking of ways to help people, to get involved more with helping those less fortunate."
Gurney's owner Paul Monte went on the trip along with his daughter, Taylor, a freshman. Most moving, he said, was "the human spirit. Although it is devastation, and depressing in a lot of ways, the one thing I saw was the strength of the human spirit, whether in the volunteers from all over the world and the country, or the people who had been displaced, who were trying to rebuild their lives. It was just an amazing feeling of, 'We'll get through this. We're all in this together.'"
Monte commended everyone on the trip, including faculty members Natasha Borisova and Lara Iden, and other students Jasper Creegan, Jonathan Dratel, James Fabrizio, Nicole Gaviola, Bronwyn Roe, Lucas Suarez-Orozco, Emily Volinski, and Zach Wolff, for their work. "I think they grew up a little bit on that trip. They saw the reality of the world and something that they probably haven't ever experienced, or ever even had a need to think too much about, because of the beautiful fantasy life that we live out here in the Hamptons."
Monte added: "We should all be proud of them — they represented us very nicely."
Everyone in New Orleans, said Nelson, was grateful. "One local said, 'You know, this time, the Yankees got it right,'" he laughed.