Speaking to Victims of Hurricane Katrina During the Winter Break

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During lunch all my friends were talking about their families’ plans for winter break. Some were visiting grandparents in Florida, while others were going to these great-sounding Caribbean resorts. My brother had even been invited by his friend’s family to go to Aruba. I was more than a little jealous since my parents couldn’t take vacation during Christmas week, and I would be stuck at home shoveling snow while everyone else was lying on the beach. I came home from school that day to find a newsletter from the Jewish Community Center, which contained an ad for an “alternative vacation” community-service trip to New ­Orleans during Christmas week, ­supported by the UJA Federation. The trip was titled Tikkun Olam, which in Hebrew means “repairing the world.” I wondered whether cleaning neighborhoods ­destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag was really the way I wanted to spend Christmas vacation. I sent in an application anyway, went for an interview, and was ­actually very excited when I was ­accepted into the program.The trip was only part of the commitment to the program. 

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First, there were meetings to get to know the 11 other kids and to give us background on the hurricanes, the rescue efforts, and the devastation that still exists in New Orleans. Then there were fund-raising activities, including writing letters to neighbors, friends, and family, bake sales, and car washes to cover our traveling expenses and to donate to the people of New Orleans. I had never been so far from home by myself, and I was a little nervous at the airport the day we left for Louisiana. At least, the weather should be warm, I thought. Little did I know, the week ahead would be the most inspiring experience of my life.We arrived in New Orleans on December 23. First, we had dinner at a pizza place that had been destroyed by the hurricane. The owners told us about how they had been forced to move to Mississippi, what they experienced when they returned to New Orleans, and their ordeal trying to rebuild their lives and the restaurant.On Christmas Eve, we spent the day whacking weeds, removing garbage, and unloading tiles as part of a beautification project in the Lower Ninth Ward. This area of the city is closest to the mouth of the Mississippi River and therefore was most heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Even today, properties still remain in ruins. 

Property owners spoke to us about having to live in trailers for more than two years, and what they have gone through to rebuild their homes. From where we worked, we could see the pink tents of the Make It Right Project, a housing effort made famous by Brad Pitt.On Christmas Day, we worked at a recovery and treatment center for addicts, preparing and serving Christmas dinner to homeless people. The people ­really appreciated our work, and we felt like we had made Christmas a little more special for them. Afterward, we met with members of a local temple. We saw how the walls of the temple had been damaged by ten feet of floodwater. Then we sorted prayer books and ritual objects, and helped clean the grounds of the synagogue.One of my favorite projects was helping at an animal rescue center. We walked the animals, cleaned their crates, and fed them. Six thousand dogs and cats, separated from their owners, were rescued by that shelter after the hurricane. I remember hearing horrible stories on TV of people who refused to evacuate because they weren’t allowed to bring their pets with them. 

Hearing these sad stories again from the animal rescue workers made me miss my own dog. The following day, we went to see St. Bernard Parish, a section of New Orleans completely destroyed by the hurricane. For more than two months this area had no electricity, clean water, or proper sewage. The homes we saw were uninhabitable. We met a man who had been living in a shelter and then a trailer. We spent the day helping him try to find the driveway of his house under all the debris. We had to wear special suits, goggles, and masks. Taking a shower that night felt really good! Even though we did a lot of work that ­resulted in some sore muscles, we had plenty of time to see New Orleans and enjoy its famous food and culture. We went to Preservation Hall for a jazz concert, visited the French Quarter (which was as awesome as people told me it would be), and had a haunted history tour. We ate authentic Cajun food and seafood gumbo, and we tried the hot chocolate and beignets (fritters) at Café Du Monde. We also spent some time with New Orleans Jews, and students from local B’nai Brith organizations joined many of our community-service activities. When I returned to New York and told my friends about my trip, I realized how ridiculous I had been to be jealous of their Christmas plans. I looked around at my house, my dog, my family, and everything I owned and felt really spoiled. All the things I saw in New Orleans, all the amazing people I met, and the small ways I was able to contribute to the rebuilding of the city made that week the most memorable vacation I can imagine. 

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