Last week was one of the hardest weeks I’ve had in college. The week before Thanksgiving Break is always a tough one because projects, papers and essays are due as the semester is drawing to an end. Needless to say, it was a stressful, sleepless week. The only thing that got me through it was knowing that I’d be on a bus to the great city of New Orleans with 47 other students for Butler’s Diversity Programs annual Volunteer Study Tour and after that, Thanksgiving with my family.
We took a bus to New Orleans, which is a 12-14 hour drive. With 46 students, the Director and Assistant Director of Diversity Programs, Valerie Davidson and Bobbie Gibson and the bus driver, we were packed. Though we had to share seats, we had a good time talking and watching movies on the way. People drifted in and out of sleep, sometimes the bus was filled with conversation, various music from achingly loud iPods and snores. Other times the only sounds heard were the slow breathing of sleep. We had breakfast stop in Meridian, MS and two hours later entered the city of New Orleans.
I tried to think of a way to describe New Orleans from the time we arrived to the composition of this blog. I keep thinking that anything I say won’t be able to adequately explain the setting of the city and its people. So I’m going to borrow a quote from a New Orleans resident in a video presentation we saw at Louisiana’s State Museum. She said, “There’s something in the air that feels like soul,” and it’s completely true. It could be because of the music, a mix of jazz and zydeco and rock and roll. Most people would say it’s the food; homemade recipes and dishes that will stay in your memory long after you’ve scraped the bowl or plate clean. Maybe it’s the rich history of all past inhabitants of the city, from Native American tribes to French and Spanish settlers, African slaves, and the current growing Mexican and Vietnamese population. It could be the strength of the people of the city itself, withstanding nature’s assaults like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and getting back up again to rebuild. Whatever the reason, as soon you step foot in New Orleans, you feel a deep sense of culture whether you’re in the French Quarter or the Ninth Ward. There’s something in the air that feels like soul in New Orleans, and it follows you wherever you go.
Our itinerary was jam-packed with as many things we could fit in our three day stay. The first day we went to Le Petit Theatre in the French Quarter and watched the film, “Surrounded By Water”. Next, we went to The Presbytere, Louisiana’s state museum and walked through an interactive and emotional exhibit about Hurricane Katrina. Salvaged objects from homes, first-hand testimonies and video were used to create the full experience. In the evening we had free time to go back to the French Quarter and for those of age, to go to Bourbon Street. On Sunday we went on a swamp tour where we saw alligators, turtles, lizards and cranes. By nightfall we were back in the French Quarter on a haunted tour.
One of the best parts of the entire trip was volunteering on Monday in the Ninth Ward with NENA, the Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association. We worked on a house that was being renovated, scrubbing floors, cleaning windows and mopping. The guys (and some girls!) were in charge of breaking up an old sidewalk to make way for a new one. When we were done with our jobs, a couple of groups walked around the neighborhood to pick up trash. Along the way we talked to residents on their porches and got to know the people we were helping. People would drive past and stop to thank us for the work we were doing in their neighborhood. Hearing how much they appreciated the small amount of work we did compared to the work that still needs to be done showed us that every little bit helps. Listening to the Project Manager, Clifford Washington, tell his story about his family’s experience during the hurricane brought perspective to the entire trip for me. Even though many people were uprooted from their homes and their lives completely changed, they still want the chance to come back to the place they call home. Programs like NENA and volunteer groups from around the country make it possible for families to stay in New Orleans. I was so glad to be a part of that effort and I will gladly return next year!