What an awesome and full couple of days! I am completely enthralled with the vibrancy of New Orleans; from the people, to the music and to the food. Oh the food! Being here with such an amazing team of fellow Berklee faculty and staff members makes it that much better too. Continue reading
Greetings from the heart of the French Quarter where we are staying directly across from Armstrong Park—and its Congo Square—a pivotal place for the beginnings of jazz since it was the only place where displaced Africans (slaves) were allowed to gather together to play music, sing and celebrate their culture. It is a powerful place to visit, as a jazz musician, and as someone who has read about those times and been heavily influenced by a long list of musicians steeped in that culture. Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, King Oliver, Luis Russell, Barney Bigard, Sidney Bechet, Irma Thomas, the Meters, the Neville Brothers, Idris Muhammad, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, and many more…. I’m looking forward to going to a concert in the park tonite.
We are here to help work on some homes being built by the organization Habitat for Humanity New Orleans. They are getting ready for, and we’re helping, for their first Build-a-Thon in NOLA “Rebuilding America Street”. The goal is to build 10 homes in 10 days. Many other volunteers are there, too and there is plenty to do. Gotta remember to drink LOTS of water, put on the suntan lotion, and don’t strain too many muscles.
Our group consists of 7 fantastic staff members (Laurie McFarlane–our group leader, Ashley Macchia, Jessica Halton, Jordan Lockaby, Julia Polanco, Andrew Crawford, Sue Buzzard) and myself—plus we had help from percussionist Tom Schmidt before he had to leave for a gig with the Portland Symphony. We are having a great time as a group…walking the city, experiencing the unique and delicious food only N’awlins can dish out, and taking in the music and the sights.
May 18, 2014: As I sit on the plane back to Boston, my skin a little burned, my body a tad beat up, bruised and sore; my heart is filled with incredible memories and a deep love for NOLA, Habitat for Humanity and the many new friends I had the honor of working side by side with this week.
Blog entry 1 – Wednesday, May 14, 2014:
From the time we landed to this evening of our second on-site work, it has been a whirlwind! Thanks to Sara’s guidance and enthusiasm, we are all managing this new experience very well and really enjoying our work.
Visually, New Orleans is an unusual blend of European and Southern Plantation style, and a little Charleston, SC, mixed with some voodoo, Cajun treats and a LOT of music. The people have been friendly, with some expressing their interest in Berklee and their appreciation for our efforts with Habitat.
I feel very lucky to be working with such a great group of people, always smiling, and positive, despite some very challenging tasks, working hard, and doing their best to make every situation work well.
On day one, most of us continued work on a house that had already been framed with wall sheathing. Our task was to shore up the wall sheathing, cut out the space for the windows, anchor the window headers, and prepare the framing on the inside for more wall sheathing between rooms. Here’s what the house looked like when we finished all of these tasks.
As the temps continued to rise and the humidity peaked, a few drops fell, much to our delight as it gave a nice break from the stuffy heat. Then very quickly the weather turned, and the refreshing drops became buckets of cold, drenching water. It was fast and furious, catching us all by surprise. And despite a full dousing, it did not ruin the mood or diminish our spirits!
On day two, a few of us went back to the same house, and others went to complete the siding on two of the houses, but instead of the expected vinyl siding, we were to put up flat pieces of cement-laden siding, preferred for its durability. It was a little tough getting the top rows in place, and we had a few blunders, but we managed to complete the top of the siding on the two homes.
Things have run very smoothly on-site. We have been lucky to have some great leaders, Ben, the manager, as well as Vu and Chris. All have been pleasant and friendly, clear in their direction and helping when needed.
After the workday Mo, our driver, took us to Ward 9, which had been severely damaged by Katrina. It was wonderful to see the new homes, many of which were funded by Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation. Some newer homes were built higher off the ground and many had an artistic flair in their design. We also got to see Musician’s Village.
Still, after every few homes, there were dilapidated and boarded houses and buildings, some of which are still in use as homes. And while so much has come back in this area, the need for help is still pressing.
So far, it’s been a lot of hard work and a lot of fun. Tonight we went for dinner at Bacchanal’s, a very hip outdoor restaurant, where we heard a great four-piece group, The Courtyard Kings, playing New Orleans gypsy jazz and swing.
This has really been a fabulous experience and I am very grateful to the Gracenotes Committee to have me be part of this project! I would come back in a heartbeat to do more! I appreciate that Berklee and Gracenotes have continued their collaboration with Habitat for Humanity, which enables these opportunities for the staff and faculty. It is such a worthwhile program that has such a life-altering impact on some very fine people in need of a little support, and you just can’t beat that.
Blog Entry 2 – Sunday, May 18, 2014:
During day 3 and 4, we prepped the second and third house for paint by caulking and filling nail holes with paint putty. Painting took place on our last day, and it was very satisfying to see some very tangible results – the houses looked quite good!
One moment I had been hoping for finally came to pass on this last day. I got to meet two of the homeowners as they worked alongside us and the other Habitat volunteers. Both were very grateful and so very excited, each talking about their plans for setting up house and the colors they would pick for the different rooms. Interestingly, both women had an 8-year old daughter, and both beamed when each spoke of her daughter’s hope and vision for her own room. It was clear that those two little girls were deeply loved and also clear how meaningful it was to each mom that she would soon be able to give her daughter a room of her own, a home for her family and something she could pass down from generation to generation.
On our last evening, we made our way to the Mid City Bayou Boogaloo. What a fantastic sight, with the orange sun dropping low, white tents peeking up with people milling about, and dozens of kayaks, small boats and other floating devices. It was a mix of crafts, art, and music, not to mention, alligator po-boys, catfish sandwiches, falafel, and more.
As folks walked and talked around the large crowds and by the river, I couldn’t help but feel sad that our NOLA adventures were coming to an end, a sentiment a few of my colleagues also expressed. Sure, there were some fun romps, great food, 20-minute excursions, and as it was later put, frolicking, but it was the time, energy, commitment and perseverance of this group that created so many valuable connections, concrete progress, and triumphant experiences, it seemed a little hard to let it go. Whether it was Sara’s love of strawberries, Eve’s matching shall, Shannon’s wide-eyed smiles at all times of the day and night, Debrina’s food pictures and very cool boots, Steve and Rebecca’s climb to the top in the blazing sun, Erin’s love of flip flops, the exuberant “Jim Boyd chant,” and his many surprises, or hearing 50 or more desperate taps to get a nail through a piece of cement–filled siding, it seemed that what went on in New Orleans would now stay there, but also in each of us.
Who knows what new adventures might lie ahead, although I do know that for four families, those adventures will include a new home of their own and that is something for which we all can feel very pleased. And someone, somewhere in New Orleans is having a new adventure with a very worn and very loved pair of John’s boots.
It happened in the blink of an eye. A life-changing experience with 10 colleagues from different areas of the college. Our 6-day trip to New Orleans has come to an end, but the friendships formed, lessons learned, and the imprints this trip have left have only just begun to find a home in my heart. <3
I was surprised to learn that we’d be helping build not one, but THREE homes in various stages of construction – all within a stone’s throw of one another. I’m embarrassed to say that until the beginning of this week, I had only ever assisted my husband on small projects around the house – like painting and mounting wall art. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to get my hands dirty and swing a hammer (safely of course)!
On day one I conquered the unruly extension ladder and fickle caulk gun, prepping one of the houses for an exterior paint job. After lunch, I was pumped to hammer some nails through the “OSB” (particle board) into the “jack” and “king” studs on the house across the street. We were faced with the challenge of working through unwanted downpours turned thundershowers, which took a toll on both the site and our inexperienced bodies. The physical labor was definitely exhausting, but also a welcomed challenge.
The next day we got to work measuring cutting and fastening window trim for openings around the unfinished house. It was one of the coldest days New Orleans had seen in a long time, but still quite sunny. I heard locals on the street likening the weather to “Antarctica”! HA! I told them they should hang out in Boston for a winter or two! I learned how not to cut my fingers off using the table saw, and finally got up the courage to use it that afternoon. I let out a nerdy squeal of excitement on my first cut – wheee!!! Remembering to drink water and reapply sunscreen that day was tough because of the chilly wind.
Day three, I was faced with an unexpected case of dehydration and was sent home from the job site early after experiencing some severe symptoms. I was frustrated to have fallen victim to a seemingly preventable ailment, and even more upset that I couldn’t work a full day. I hydrated and rested up for day four, which is when we painted the full exterior of one of the houses! Seeing the transformation of this house from bare siding to “Bourbon Street Blue” was such a rewarding experience. It really made me feel like we accomplished something BIG!
This was also my most memorable day on the job for two reasons: one, I got to climb on the roof and see a magnificent view of the New Orleans East neighborhood and lake Ponchartrain from a much higher and wider perspective, and two, I got to work alongside Shell-Donna; one of the lovely ladies who is thrilled to call one of these houses her HOME. Her heartfelt story warmed my soul. Donna is a gracious and strong woman who, in the face of adversity, exudes so much positivity – you just want to hug her! After a long week, it’s easy to whine about aches and pains, the hot sun and the hard work, but it’s people like Donna who make it all worthwhile. Her deep gratitude for all the help she’s received from Habitat staff and volunteers was evident, and her permanent smile – infectious.
A Katrina victim during her 5th month of pregnancy, Donna, her sister and her mother evacuated their homes and embarked on a 16-hour journey by car to Northwestern State University in Natchitoches Louisiana. She lived in the gymnasium on two dorm mattresses and received 3 meals a day for 2 months. The stress induced premature labor, and Donna gave birth to her daughter Avahna Jolie at 7-months. She was born just under 3 pounds, and once nursed to a healthy weight, Donna connected with her uncle, who allowed she, her mother and the baby to stay at his home on the military base nearby. A few months later and after several expensive trips back and forth, they moved home to New Orleans to rebuild. Their 2-story home was damaged, but not beyond repair.
Today, Avahna is 8 years old. Her proud mother showed me pictures of her daughter in a beautiful white dress, at Avahna’s recent Baptism. Donna heard about Habitat through a friend, but was unsure of how she could benefit from the organization with such a low credit score. She finally made contact and the rest is history. Donna, a single, hard-working mother, who works two jobs to support her family, is an example to us all to never give up hope and to never give up the fight. Her cheery disposition and her sunny outlook on life gave me the chills. I am beyond thrilled to say we – with the selfless assistance of Habitat staff and countless volunteers – helped Donna come back home.
To Berklee and the Gracenotes Committee, I am thankful to have been given this incredible opportunity. To my Berklee colleagues, who I could not have survived this trip without – I am proud to call you my friends. We’ve learned a lot about each other in the last week, and I’m happy to have shared in this amazing experience of giving back to New Orleans with each of you.