Student Service Reflection: A Different Kind of Vacation

A student reflects on his travel to New Orleans, where he helped rebuild parts of the Ninth Ward.
Grade Level

I wake up lying on a street I don't recognize, my face covered in a mask of sweat. I am in the middle of some ghost-town suburbia; the decaying shells of small, white houses poke like rotted teeth out of the dusty gape of the landscape. Somewhere in the distance, sirens wail.

It takes a moment before I realize where I am. When I do, I know there's nowhere else I'd rather be spending part of my summer vacation.

I am in the lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, almost 10 months after one of the worst natural disasters hit American soil, and it looks as though Hurricane Katrina could have hit yesterday. Heaping piles of wood beams, shingles and steel rods line dusty, barren streets. Poisonous black mold suffocates walls like shaggy wallpaper. Backyards have been transformed into junkyards, littered with decomposing garbage -- dolls, shoes, TVs, and rusted cars -- left behind by the torrent of toxic floodwater.

I wipe the sweat from my forehead and grab a drink of water. It's time to get back to work.

The chance to go to New Orleans the summer of my senior year was presented to me only a week before my high school graduation. Sean Thomas, a world history teacher at my school, and Allison Barns, a world literature teacher, wanted to offer concerned students at Eldorado High School an opportunity to do more than just talk about the issues.

Most volunteer-based organizations did not accept minors, but after much Internet surfing, Mr. Thomas and Ms. Barns came across the Common Ground Collective, a grassroots effort established in response to the disaster that opens its arms to any willing laborer. Our teachers quickly sorted through the details, investigated legalities and set course for the trip.

Because it was too late in the year to follow typical school protocol, the school was unwilling to take responsibility for the trip. But Mr. Thomas and Ms. Barns knew that they still had the support of the student body; they decided they would guide the trip simply as Sean and Allison. They would not be teachers, they would be guides; not school employees, but leaders.

One week later, they'd gathered a manageable group of 41 students. A team meeting for both parents and students was held, followed by a workshop for students on working with people who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

On May 26, we hit the road for New Orleans. The majority of the 20-hour bus ride was spent in high morale, with anxieties over our inexperience transferred into excessive chatter and laughter. We were given several articles covering the situation in New Orleans, addressing topics like global warming, racism and the economy.

I soon realized, however, that every article and news clip ever created on Katrina could not have prepared me for the emotional impact that occurs when articles and news clips become a tangible and unavoidable reality.

Now, five days into our trip, I return to work, gutting the mold-choked walls of a house in the Ninth Ward. Emmanuel, a New Orleans native working with Common Ground through his church, had assigned our team to the house of his childhood friend. When we arrive, we're warmly received by a 70-year-old black man with wire-rimmed glasses and a wire-thin smile. The man had fled to Atlanta during the hurricane; but when the New Orleans government threatened to bulldoze any Ninth Ward house not protected by its owner, he and his sister returned, in hopes of salvaging just the flooded frame of their childhood home.

That's why we're here. We throw on our Tyvek suits (cloth suits that seem more like wearable ovens than protective gear in the midday New Orlean's sun) and press forward: clearing out the rotting, waterlogged furniture and gutting walls charred with mold. The owner and his sister stare after us as we dismantle the house, their faces as stark and cold as the pale frame of its wooden skeleton; I realize that before this moment, I never really knew what loss truly was.

"Did you find any money in the walls?" the sister calls after us, laughing. I never really knew what strength truly was, either.

We work closely with Emmanuel and the people of his neighborhood, and through them we learn that when a crisis is to be solved, all members of the human family are responsible. It goes back to the core slogan of Common Ground Collective: solidarity, not charity.

We're not here because we have to be. We're here because we should have been here, and this knowledge, along with the absolute bonding that comes through the betterment of others, is a unique and powerful experience made possible by a horrific disaster.

That night, Thomas and Barns lead us through the last of three discussion groups held during the trip. After the long days of labor, the team assembles in the dining room of our hotel to address issues that are uncomfortable to talk about, yet all too necessary based on our surroundings. We discuss racism, poverty and global warming, the three major players that led, not only to the flooding, but to the thousands of lives lost and overlooked by a neglectful government and an ignorant society. Was this the America we wanted to grow up in? How do we responsibly affect change? There are many tears during our talks, but this flood of emotion only strengthened the levees of our understanding of one another and our faith in the future of our generation.

Later that night, we eat dinner in the French Quarter of New Orleans, a still-glowing city with a spirit as bright as its Bourbon Street, and I realize that I don't have to have any special abilities or connections to help fix a great crisis. Mr. Thomas and Ms. Barns helped us to see that a simple curiosity and a passion for helping others is enough force to inspire solutions to our real problems. Allison and Sean lit the path of global unity and responsibility, and it's up to me to walk along it.

Sometimes hurricanes also blow in the winds of opportunity.

Ben Taylor is a first-year student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


Discussion Questions

  1. Before Ben and his group left for New Orleans, they read articles and held group discussions to learn about the political, social and economic issues affecting the city. Why did they do this? How do you think Ben's experience might have been different if they had arrived in New Orleans without those articles and conversations?
  2. The slogan of Common Ground, the group that hosted Ben and his classmates, is "Solidarity, not Charity". Ben defines this slogan this way: "...when a crisis is to be solved, all members of the human family are responsible." What does this slogan mean to you? How are solidarity and charity different? How are they the same? If you were the man in the Ninth Ward whose house was destroyed, how would you want to be treated?
  3. In the discussion that happened after the students helped clean out the house, Ben says they talked about "uncomfortable" topics and that some people cried. Yet it sounds like the discussion was a positive thing. Why do you think that is?
  4. At the end of the essay, Ben writes, "I don't have to have any special abilities or connections to help fix a great crisis." What does this mean? What's an example from your own community? Your own life?
  5. Who benefited from the service performed by the students in New Orleans? The community? The students? Both? Why?
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