NOLA, also known as New Orleans, Louisiana, is one of the most culture rich places you could possibly visit in the United States. And I was one of the lucky 10 students chosen to accompany Michael Casciato, the leader of campus ministry, on a mission trip to this beautiful city.
I’m a freshman here at the Mount and have never traveled farther than the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, so I was excited to go on this trip for various reasons. I was mostly eager because I had never been able to immerse myself this much in service before. This trip contains four days of working on a house and, depending on when you happen to arrive during the process, you could be doing anything from gutting the house, putting up dry wall and flooring, or simply doing the finishing touches on paint.
For my group, we did a lot of work with baseboards and shoe molding when we first arrived. Our major project was flooring one bedroom and the living room, which was very time consuming, but not too strenuous. Some of us even learned how to do tiling for a closet. The work we did wasn’t exactly easy, but that wasn’t what was important.
Some of the people we met were simply amazing. They had so many stories about what their lives were like before and after the storm, and even people who came to volunteer with us had some incredible stories to share.
One day, a man stopped by to see if we needed any extra help with anything ,or if we needed any spare building supplies because he knew that this house was being worked on. He had lived in New Orleans before Katrina had hit and had gotten his contracting license a year before the storm swept away most of the houses in the Ninth Ward, which is the area we were working in.
He told us that since the storm destroyed most of the homes, he’s been trying to give back to the city and restore it to its former glory by working with families—for little or no pay—to rebuild their roofs and anything else he can help with.
The man we were building the house for didn’t get to stop by until the last day of our trip to see the progress. His name was Mr. Raymond and he has seen more hardships in his life than I could ever imagine. On our first day of working we were all given a description of who would be living in the home after we finished with our work.
Our group received a paper describing Mr. Raymond, who had lost his home to the hurricane. It also said that within the years that had passed he had lost his parents and wife. So not only had he lost his home, but also his family. We learned that he was currently living with his girlfriend and was eager to move back home.
Anxious to get started, my group moved to the work site to find that we would be working with a group of students from Transylvania on the house as well. A few of us bonded with some of the students from the other group, myself included. I began working with a girl named Olivia who was actually from Cincinnati. As the week progressed we all became worried we wouldn’t be able to meet Mr. Raymond, for he had a long drive to arrive where we were working.
He made it at the end of the third day, but we all were leaving and got to spend only a sliver of time with him. However the next day he came back and was able to spend more time with us. It is a requirement that the people who benefit from the St. Bernard Project must actively take part in the rebuilding of their home. However, due to his condition, Mr. Raymond isn’t very physically active.
Even still, he came as often as he could and did whatever he could to help move the project along. On the fourth day, as he passed through the house and saw how much progress had been made, tears came to his eyes. He could only thank us each as he passed us. There were no other words to say. We could all feel how much joy and pride radiated from him as he passed us knowing that soon enough he would be able to move back into his home and lead a normal life again.
It is so tragic to think of how much folks lost due to hurricane Katrina, but the pure happiness in his eyes told us we were making all the struggles and desperation slowly resolve. We were making a difference. Even if it was only for one life, and we only spent a week own there, we were changing somebody’s whole world.
However, the most inspiring part of the trip can only be expressed in one simple name: Carl. Carl is a man unlike any other. He has been coming down to volunteer for the St. Bernard Project for at least eight years and plans to continue coming back every year. He comes on his own, with no word of warning to the people in charge or anything. He simply shows up ready to work and does whatever he is told.
He may just seem like an ordinary citizen who has a really big heart, but Carl is much more astonishing than that. Carl has a mental disorder, what exactly he has we didn’t ask. Carl doesn’t have the easiest life. He struggles every day, but all he ever wants to do is give back. And he does it whole heartedly. Carl has the gentlest of souls, and seems almost childlike. He will occasionally walk up and just hold your hand simply for comfort of being surrounded by friends. He can remember where every person he meets comes from, and his favorite Christmas song is “O Come All Ye Faithful”. One of the Mount volunteers on the trip with me, Tevin Byers, asked him what his favorite Christmas song was, and after Carl’s prompt response Tevin pulled the song up on YouTube and played it for him. Carl was happier than I had seen him the whole trip simply because we played his favorite song.
My group was completely and utterly inspiring. The trip wouldn’t have been the same without a single one of them. Without Debbie’s sweet personality or Leslie’s gentle spirit and her ability to make you feel at home. I’d never give up my roommates April and Jenna who were like sisters to me and took me under their wing when I felt alone. And Tevin whose wit kept us all lively even when we were down and out. And who could ever replace Taylor who was one of the funniest and most classy women I’ve ever met. Or Daphne who practically mothered us all and took care of us when we didn’t even know we needed it. Leanne and Danielle were our super nursing students who always seemed to be able to offer solutions that I could never see.
Not one of us will forget the sisters we stayed with anytime soon who opened both their home and hearts to us. Finally, Michael, our fearless leader who was strong enough for all of us, and had to put up with us for a week. We all brought something to the table, and we will all take something different away. New Orleans may have left a mark on us, but we surely left our mark on it.