Hope amid the ruins
Volunteers come in all shapes, sizes and motivations. My reasons were personal, related to losing my own home in a fire in 2003. I recall how family, friends and strangers offered help and support; that outpouring gave me the strength to drag myself out of bed in the days following the destruction of my home. Volunteering with Habitat for Humanity was my chance to return what was given to me: love and hope.
My stretch as a volunteer began in June 2006. My destination was New Orleans, ground zero for Hurricane Katrina. Assigned by HFH to St. Bernard’s Parish and wielding pry bars, hammers, shovels and the like, we gutted homes. This enabled the property owners to decide whether to rebuild, sell or abandon their homes. Most decided they would rather abandon what remained than try to salvage what was left of the lives they had once known.
Gutting homes is difficult work, made more difficult by stifling temperatures, extreme humidity and the constant smell of decay. I anticipated the heat. I did not, however, anticipate how emotionally difficult viewing all of the destruction would be, nor just how toxic the city had become.
What I learned from the experience of helping to clean up after Katrina was how to give in a tangible and meaningful way, like those who’d given to me. I learned about helping others in their time of need and how to demonstrate caring when it seems that no one—government included—does. I learned perspective about the trivial matters of my own life by bearing witness to real destruction, tragedy and hopelessness. I learned and observed firsthand the failures of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Bush administration to quickly aid the citizens of New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast, both before and after Katrina came ashore.
And finally, I learned about the value of individual contributions to the massive task of rebuilding a city and a culture—one home at a time. That’s why I’m going back in October to assist with the continuing struggle to clean up.
As for the why—readers can decide that for themselves. That Katrina lives on in the form of misery and despair for thousands should be enough.