We recently asked for your voluntourism stories, and were glad to hear from Traci Angel, a health and science freelance journalist from Columbia, Missouri, just back from a trip with Hands on New Orleans.
Scratch, scratch, scratch. Scheesh, sheesh, boom, boom. BOOM. Sheeesh. Sheesh. Three hours crawled by as we heaved and lunged our bodies against small hand blades to scrape away paint from an entryway of New Orleans’ Pierre A. Capdeau School. The peeled areas were about to be replaced with a newer, and brighter, baby-blue hue.
This is not your typical vacation.
In late February, I was working with the volunteer organization Hands On New Orleans. We’d come like so many others have — to help out as tourists.
Pierre A. Capdau, a charter school, was closed for four months following Hurricane Katrina while officials ensured the classrooms could pass health inspections. More than two years later, the school and surrounding Gentilly neighborhood continue to rebuild. Across the street from the playground, a huge dumpster spilled over with broken furniture. A man stood on a ladder applying a bold gold paint to a house’s front porch. The house next door was vacant, still scarred with spray paint markings that symbolized rescuers’ efforts (date checked/occupants recovered) after the hurricane. I felt better seeing “0” in the markings, indicating number of people found inside during the weeks that followed Katrina. Maybe those who lived there have started anew elsewhere.
Our hands cramped from repeatedly whacking at the hardened paint. Shirts came untucked. Sweat dripped as the temperature climbed inside the cramped hallways. Exhausted, we looked at each other through the smoky cloud of dust that grew denser with our clamoring. Then I heard another sound. It came from the piano nearby that was dotted with paint chippings. Don, don, don. Don, da, don, da, don, da. Don, don don don....A volunteer college student played “Heart and Soul"(the song from the huge piano that Tom Hanks plays with his feet in “Big”). Its happy, catchy two-part harmony rose above our banging.
We discovered Hands On New Orleans after we learned that the better-known Habitat for Humanity was full on the dates we would be in town. Hands On operates out of a volunteer center that can bunk volunteers and sees many college groups looking for alternate break options. Americorps groups from across the country take turns staffing the projects.
During the day at Pierre Capdau I met a Londoner on holiday who came to volunteer for a few days. His story was similar to ours. We wanted to do something besides drop money on tall beers and daiquiris on Bourbon Street. We wished to bear witness to the city we ached for. We had seen the horror of people trudging through waist-high flooded streets and families stranded on rooftops, all while sitting paralyzed in front of our televisions, in our cozy, dry living rooms. The order for martial law prohibited us from going there, so we sat miles away, armed only with our checkbooks and faith that the Red Cross would wisely use the money we gave.
Now we are invited, encouraged and called to come to New Orleans. Movie stars, NBA All Stars, college groups and those who just want to help come to see for themselves what they had experienced only through news articles and TV interviews. They are soaking up the community’s spirit, wandering out of the Jackson Square and making their own memorable New Orleans tunes through pounding hammers and bristling brushes.
As we finished our day of work, the hallway once again filled with music. This time, it was a chorus of energetic school kids who were excited to head home for the day. They passed us and waved as they spilled into the sunshine. One asked, as he glanced at the heaps of debris, why we were making such a mess of his school. They’ll soon see something better — a brand-new entrance. Maybe they’ll notice. A teacher did, and thanked us.
“When kids see someone redoing their school and making a change, it makes a difference,” he said, becoming emotional. “They know they aren’t just left behind when they see you here.”
Do you have your own voluntourism experience? Email us, we'd love to hear your stories.
Photos: Traci Angel