Contrary to what you might have expected, the idea to volunteer during my birthday pilgrimage to New Orleans was MY idea. True it sounds like Dan and true, Dan was really enthusiastic about it (perhaps after 5+ years, we're really turning into the same person), but I have to say, it was all my brilliance. I thought it would be an interesting experience to help rebuild a tiny part of New Orleans and perhaps kick start the next 30 years of my life as being a little less self-centered.
With the help of a former co-worker, Dan hooked us with with the Annunciation Mission which is helping residents of the Broadmoor neighborhood of New Orleans get their lives back in order after Hurricane Katrina. We prepared by watching the four hour Spike Lee documentary When the Levees Broke (yeah, we're total dorks). Dan bought his and her work gloves and I had visions of building houses with cool, interesting volunteers and making a difference at the same time. Well, the difference one (or two) can make in two days.
When we arrived Thursday at the Mission, we met Ari, our very friendly volunteer coordinator, who told us that given our skill set (um, that would be none), she didn't feel comfortable for us to do something cool like gut a house. And so we were going to do some yard work.
As she went around and gathered rakes and a weed whacker and a machete, among other things, it dawned on us that Dan and I were the only volunteers and we would be doing this alone. Immediately, our excitement about being surrounded by a colorful group of volunteers were dashed.
"If we're going to be by ourselves, it almost feels like punishment," Dan whispered when Ari left us alone for a few minutes. I suddenly felt like this was quite possibly the worst idea I've ever came up with.
"We can just take off and run away now," I answered. "No one will know."
Ari came back, so we did not run. She gave us a little tour of the Broadmoor neighborhood which had been under water during Katrina. First she showed us an abandoned home whose front lawn has grown full of weeds. No one knows where the owner is. We would need to clear it out because the neighbors were starting to complain and seeing that mess brought down morale in the neighborhood. It was just a reminder of all that was lost.
Ari drove around the block and showed us another lot filled with waist length weeds and debris and said we could hit that one next, and then she drove some more and showed us the backyard of the first house, which looked like a weed forest, which we could also hit if we had time.
"Have fun!" she said cheerfully, before jumping back into her car and leaving us there to fend for ourselves. "If people talk to you, talk back. And don't give money to anyone."
Dan inspecting the overgrown lawn we needed to clean up.
With crazy intensity, Dan and I embarked on clearing the front lawn of the house, and with the exception of lunch at the church, that is what we did non-stop from 9 am to 4pm in the 80-degree hot sun.
I have a confession to make: I have never done yard work in my life. That's right. In my lifetime, I have not raked a single leaf or pulled a single weed. And here I was, cleaning up weeds thick as asparagus that grew to my knees. It was hard work. But in a way, it was kind of cleansing, getting rid of all that crap.
Things I thought about during the clean-up:
1. The homeowners. Who were the people who used to live in that house? Where are they now and would they ever come back? The house still had its spray-painted markings from Katrina that said the house had been checked for dead bodies. It said this house had 0 bodies. Dan and I couldn't help but wonder: What if they missed one? Dan, the snoop, tried to peek inside their house, but all the doors were locked.
The creepy Katrina marking.
2. My grandma. She was such as avid gardener, and I have memories of her walking around the yard in a flowered dress, hands clasped behind her back, often time clutching a handful of weeds. What would she think of me now?
3. The fantasy future. I imagined that Dan and I bought this house and we were fixing the yard. I thought about how pretty we would make it look. Actually, a few people in the neighborhood mistook us as the new homeowners and came by to welcome us in the neighborhood or sell their business services.
4. The point. We learned that people in the neighborhood had already cleaned this lawn multiple times. Was there a reason for this? The weeds would definitely grow back. But then two people did stop by and thank us for the work we were doing, and I knew that it was somewhat worthwhile.
Day one I came home a hot, dirty, smelly, scratched, bruised, itchy, mosquito bitten mess. But at least we made an impact:
The yard before.
The yard after.
We never got to the other two lots that day.
When I closed my eyes to go to bed that night, I had visions of weeds. Endless amounts of weeds.
Day two of volunteering, Ari asked us to work on the backyard which was kind of a disaster and not very visible to the public. Luckily, I had the chance to leave to accompany one of the social workers to visit an elderly woman in the neighborhood to hear her story about how the abandoned and badly damaged house next door (the one that should have been torn down a year ago) recently crashed into her home and almost killed her. The mission will write about her story in their neighborhood newsletter.
Driving back to Dan, I saw a whole bunch of other volunteer groups: a group of people rebuilding a home and a bunch of college photography students who were taking pictures and volunteering. THAT's what I thought volunteering was going to be like, and I longed to spend more time with those people and those projects. But instead, the social worker dropped me off to be with Dan, who all by himself was raking up leaves at a forgettable corner in the neighborhood.
When I told him what I saw, we both kind of sighed, looked wistfully at the distance, imagining what this whole thing could have been had there been other volunteers. We liked our charity and thought they were doing good work, but we were losing motivation with just the two of us and so we decided to call it a half-day.
Having done our volunteer time, we were ready to see New Orleans without our work gloves. That was my idea too. And Dan's, too.
After a hot day in the sun, icy treats at SnoWizard tasted oh-so-good. Note dirty hands and face.