Even six-plus years after Hurricane Katrina left an official death toll of 1,464 people in Louisiana – with other estimates ranging as high as 4,000 – a mission trip to New Orleans was bound to make a powerful impression on Assumption College students who went there to do community service.
But for Katrina Mitchell, the expedition’s student leader, the January visit was just the latest chapter in a relationship that began in 2006, less than a year after the hurricane hit New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005.
Katrina did her first mission trip to the Big Easy as a high school sophomore, thanks to a project sponsored by her church, Seekonk Congregational in Seekonk, Mass. “We were assigned to restore a donated building for volunteers to stay at while doing community service in New Orleans,” she wrote me.
Two years later, as a high school senior, she returned. “We worked with local neighborhoods on restoring their spirits. Our first assignment was to create a mural for a pre-school in a run-down area. Then, we did a walk with residents in this same area to advocate for safety in the neighborhoods and on surrounding streets by doing away with crime.” Then, in 2011, came a third New Orleans venture, through SEND (Students Exploring New Destinations). “We worked with Operation Helping Hands at three different houses that needed scraping, cocking, priming, and painting. We also went to a local swamp to plant vegetation and a dog park to plant trees.”
These intense but short service encounters have their limitations. A critically intelligent writer whom I’ve been fortunate enough to teach in the English/Sociology course “Literature of Social Responsibility”, Mitchell certainly knows that neighborhood walks, in and of themselves, aren’t enough to dramatically change crime rates, just as she probably also knows that there are larger structural problems that can only be addressed on the governmental level. But now that I’ve seen firsthand the college groups who impact my hometown of Tuscaloosa, I see that each of those trips brings fresh energy and young bodies to the long, slow grind of recovery – as well as reminding the locals that people elsewhere haven’t forgotten.
Certainly, that’s the case for Katrina – who decided that even three visits to the Big Easy weren’t enough. So she signed on as student leader of the January expedition. “The most interesting experience I had … was seeing the reactions of my friends. Last year’s group of students was all seniors with the exception of myself. Therefore, when I returned home it was hard to communicate my experience with my friends because they hadn’t had the opportunity of visiting Louisiana themselves. So this year I was especially excited to share such an experience with people that I already enjoy spending time with. It made me happy to see them doing the same work that I was so passionate about.”
The work this time involved two structures. They did a lot of scraping, priming, and painting on the home of an elderly woman who had just lost her husband. Then, in an abandoned flood-damaged structure, the group tore away walls and floors and stripped away old paint. The group even helped remove Christmas decorations from a park after a community celebration.
When it comes to the educational component of mission, Katrina’s work in New Orleans has dealt with concerns ranging from housing and crime to ecology and children – and more. Meanwhile, what strikes her most, seemingly, is what she’s learned about the city of New Orleans.
“The spirit of the people is what keeps me going back to New Orleans,” Katrina told me. “Their resilience is amazing and inspiring. The city has quickly come back to life since the hurricane and its devastating effects. Yes, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but because of the thousands upon thousands of volunteers that have come to help, New Orleans grew back stronger than ever. I am in love with the city and its people.”
Her experience underscores the value of leaving one’s home region.
“As a person who has always lived in the Northeast, nothing is more refreshing than the true Southern hospitality that remains consistent between each and every individual that you run into from the area, whether it’s in the streets, on a trolley, at the French Quarter, or wondering along Bourbon Street.
“Everyone is all smiles all the time. They may appreciate the work that volunteers do, but they do not realize how much we appreciate them for what they are able to show us through their warmth and compassion in accepting and welcoming us to their community.”