Mud Baths Never Looked So Good
Mud, mud, and more mud sufficiently summarizes the conditions of much of the ground that we were working on for our first day of work. The somewhat disappointing weather for our start-up did not stop our work, however, as we trudged through the slosh and worked alongside the trained professionals. We braved the harsh cold and hammered nails as if we had done this form of labor for years (the bent nails were just warm-ups). Members of our group climbed monstrous heights to work near and on the roofs of various homes-in-progress. Others mastered the art of mixing concrete and placing posts in the correctly leveled position. The trash which needed to be transported to the dumpster was completed with the help of myself and a few others from the group. We enjoyed placing the trash strategically in the back of the truck only to be removed a few minutes later in its’ final destination. I must say we had interesting jobs that kept us on our toes, despite not being able to completely feel our feet due the the chills in the air.
Lunch never tasted so good as when we were able to sit in the van to warm ourselves up and sneak in a short but necessary nap. The rest of the afternoon ran smoothly and we continued with our assigned tasks. Our leaders and skilled craftsmen and craftswomen were the keys to our success and the reasons we avoided causing damage to the structures. Our dedication to helping and our determination to work through the cold were the reasons we completed the day with good attitudes and attractive, mud-covered attire.
Goodwill During Good Will
Tuesday, March 2
After a long, cold day of working in the wind and the chilling temperatures yesterday (though slightly warmer than Pittsburgh), our group quickly realized we were not equipped for the weather. This could only have led to one thing- Goodwill.
We piled into the van and bombarded the store shopping for sweaters and other warm clothing, and it eventually turned into finding the most ridiculous items (sweaters that say: Love me, love my cat) and deciding to wear them today. Many of us wore flannel, button-up shirts, 80’s sweaters, and, for me, a brown crew-neck sweatshirt bearing a pair of sneakers accompanied by a Zen scripture about hiking and Mother Nature. I am pretty sure I will be wearing this every day for the rest of my life.
Of course, our apparel received compliments all day from our fellow Habitat for Humanity workers, but that’s to be expected when we looked so incredibly cool. Eventually, I will have to wear the overalls that I bought!
here comes the sun and i say…
Wednesday, March 3
Today was awesome in the Bayou because the sun joined us for the party and despite a little wind we managed to have comfortable temperatures of around 55. I worked mostly with a few peeps on a few side porches by digging holes for the posts and mixing cement. I also learned about lumber and how to identify an individual boards crowning direction. A piece of lumbar has a natural curve up or down but it’s very slight. All of the boards need to have matching crowns to keep the base of a house level. For lunch today we had our packed lunch and joined the group from Bryn Athyn College and we ate at the Abita (uh-bee-tuh) Gazebo. We enjoyed the fellowship of our peers and some of us took a tour of the Abita museum. We learned about the rich history of the small town who descended from the Choctaw Indian Tribe. In the museum was a collection of arrow heads and and pictorial time line of the major events in Abita. After dinner we all took a trip to Starbucks were we socialized and continued to bond as a group. JW, our fearless leader, asked us questions about the trip and what changes we would like to see for future students. We also had a stirring conversation about the changes being made to the University; it is an ever growing urban campus. We are all hoping the weather keeps up for the rest of the trip!
Pink Cheeks and Power Tools
Thursday, March 4
Getting up at 6:50 AM is getting easier and easier as the days progress. We all felt super confident this morning as we loaded up the Habitat truck with materials to be used on the houses. We all tied on our tool belts, grabbed a bunch of nails, hammers, measuring tapes, and set out to work. Today we concentrated on one particular house and meet one of Habitat’s home owners Warren. We were all happy to meet him as he stopped by for a few hours to contribute to one of the construction sites. At the end of the day we donated all of our volunteer hours towards his required service hours as being a Habitat home-owner. 7 hours per person times 12, gave Warren 84 hours. He was very grateful.
I, personally, spent most of this week digging holes for porch posts and setting them in concrete, but today I learned how to install J Channel for vinyl siding. After overcoming the muddy obstacles, and feeling my ladder sink into the quicksand-like-mud as I stood on it, April and I boxed in the top of the front porch and the door to the shed so that Kelly and Chelsey could start putting up the vinyl siding. Each day seems to be going by faster as more blood blisters appear. We all are becoming more confident with power tools, and our faces have started to turn pink from the sun. It just set in today that the end of our trip is approaching and we will have to leave Louisiana behind sooner than any of us want.
We had dinner with Bryn Athyn and Roanoke College tonight and afterwards we had an impromptu party with Roanoke. We all crammed into our small lounge and watched The Office. Yay Pam and Jim had their baby.
Two more days until we are back in Pittsburgh… full of vitamin D and ready to finish the second half of the semester. Hopefully the sun will follow us back up north!
The end is near
Friday, March 5th
So it’s the last night of this trip and I’m sitting next to Jake who doesn’t seem to remember my name…however, he is the trip’s entertainment. He has this larger-than-life personality and is just like the energizer bunny with a slight defect. He keeps going and going, then straight-up falls asleep in about mid-conversation. Case in point: he’ll be talking about the tiny street signs, cracking everyone up, and then the next minute he’ll be snoring.
Anyway, about this week. I started out, like most of the group, with absolutely no idea of what construction work was like. Monday it took me seven hours to learn how to hammer correctly and put a nail into the roof upside down. By the end of the week, I could totally help put siding on your house if you needed me to and hammer any nail (well, except for the long bendy ones). It’s so empowering, like, I CAN DO THIS. I think it’s probably mental block people have before working because anyone can hammer a nail. You just have to be willing to overcome preconceived ideas about what you can do. Example: By the second day, my whole body hurt. But I was able to push past that and work for two more days! Maybe slower, but I was able to do it.
But work was just one aspect of the trip. Meeting the group and working as a team was a major importance. At first, I had no idea who I was going with. When I found out that nine other girls were going, I was nervous. I mean, girls together for too long = drama, right? Especially when seven of us are crammed into a windowless room that’s slightly damp and has an off-smell. For some reason, that became one of my favorite parts of the trip. We would all be exhausted, but when it was time to go to bed, all of the girls in the room would stay up late and just talk! Not arguing, gossiping, of whatever, but just learning about each other’s lives, lifestyles, and ideas. And this is what I learned about my new friends this week:
JW-He seems scary at first, like he just doesn’t like you. But really, he is the coolest guy. He has this wry, hilarious humor.
Jake-like i said earlier, is the defective energizer bunny who is always trying new things and is the team’s translator…he’s the only one who likes to interact with the other groups…
Liz-tries to appear tough but is a really sweet caring person who is really patient if you need help with anything
April-has these incredible eyes and is always smiling. She seems really dedicated and sticks with any task she’s given
Audrey-is so energetic! She is totally hardcore and hammers things with her body at weird angles since she’s a dancer.
Chelsea (dancer)-is the funniest girl. She totally cracks me up and does this crazy warm up dance since she’s always cold
Chelsea (photographer)-is really dedicated. She’s been putting together this story for the Globe and works on it every night. Also, she has these huge aspirations for graduation that I’m sure will work for her
Kelly-also totally dedicated to the story! And she’s so chill and always sharing her straightener with the rest of the group. She also has great bangs
Karen-is so sweet is like my little sister and also has beautiful. I get to braid her hair every night and we have these great talks when we walk outside around the church.
Laura-is always learning. You can just tell from the way she listens. And she has a great smile!
Megan-is so smart and is my source of information whenever i have a philosophical question. She also has great hair and knows a ton about ethnic food!
I’m probably not going to remember the extreme tiredness I felt after lunch, the times I smashed my finger with the hammer, or the nasty dog that kept following us after rolling in sewage. But I will remember how awesome these people were, how big their hearts are, and the friendships I made over this past week. Whether they’re building houses, joining the Peace Corps, or just going to school, these people are really living life. And I feel so blessed to be in a group that worked together so well, where people were willing to sacrifice that last piece of gum or that front seat…well maybe the middle seat.
Our Last Day in the Swamp
Saturday, March 6
Saturday was bittersweet, as we had just said goodbye to our new acquaintances the day before, and were to depart back to Pittsburgh in the evening. That’s the bitter part. The sweet part was that Saturday morning we had an adventure in the bayous and swamps of Louisiana. Saturday morning, we arrived at the bank of the West Pearl River, which is the beginning location of Honey Island Swamp Tours. As I stepped out of our van, I immediately reached for my camera. I felt like we were about to embark on an adventure only seen in action movies, possibly never to return. The woodland shack we entered to pay for the tour was a cove of swamp life knick-knacks, including alligator heads, teeth, and “lucky” gator feet for sale. Once we paid, our brave group of twelve was lead to the river bank, where the water was seven feet too high , and onto a covered tour boat. Our captain’s name was Melvin Cousins, and spotting reptiles was his game. We left the dock and were told to keep our legs and arms inside the boat at all times, and each one of us had our cameras ready to catch that first picture of an alligator…
We were all amazed at how well Captain Cousins pointed out tiny lizards and snakes that were the same color as their swampy backdrop . What amazed me was the while he drove the boat, he gave and in depth history of Louisiana, and spotted animals. All in all, we saw a few lizards, two snakes, and something furry, and… an alligator!! Kind of. To makes sure we got to see one, our Captain was prepared with a baby gator found after flooding, separated from his mom. Everyone got to hold Little Bit, and some wanted to take him home, until we learned that he would grow to be nine feet long. We also saw remaining devastation of Katrina along the river, in the debris of destroyed fishing shacks and dwellings once used for weekend gatherings. Aside from these buildings, there are also many homes along the river that have either been rebuilt or remodeled.
But that was our wonderful swamp tour, we all managed to make it back to dry land safely, yes even Jake. We will miss you, Bayou.
Reflections on Some Hard Work in the Big Easy
Sunday, March 7th
Today was the first day back in Pittsburgh and reality has set in rather quickly, thanks to homework that needs to be done for classes tomorrow (the books I brought on the trip and my good intentions were unfortunately no match for my overwhelming desire to bond with my bed at the end of each work day). However, this trip has been worth every hour of sleep I may lose tonight, and more. From the first day (or night rather), when everyone on the trip got to know each other at 3:30 in the morning, I realized I was in for something. I was proved right.
Upon arriving at Peace Lutheran Mission Center, to a good dose of southern hospitality from our hosts, we tentatively began the process of really getting to know each other. We were aided in this task that night by a giant appetizer plate of New Orleans food and a lively zydeco band. The following day, we explored the French Quarter, undeterred by rain that lasted most of the afternoon and evening. Tuesday, we began our first day of work with Habitat Humanity, in more rain and cold temperatures which seemed intent on making all of us wonder why we left Pittsburgh. However, despite the less than ideal conditions we were able to bond during the experience (and enjoy a brown bag lunch in a van more than should probably be possible).
It was these sorts of moments which helped make this trip one I will never forget. I had the opportunity to do some challenging and unbelievably rewarding work for people who truly need it in an incredible city which has a seemingly unbreakable spirit. The people with Habitat For Humanity and also AmeriCorps deserve some sort of medal for the time and energy they give. And in addition, I was able to meet and get to know some really awesome people who I have probably walked by a thousand times on my way to classes without even knowing it (if it was in the morning, while on my way to get coffee before my first class, I’m sorry, I can’t be held accountable). Overall, Spring Break ‘10 can be chalked up as a huge success. So, in the words of a now honorary New Orleanian - WHO DAT?!
Friends, Accomplishments, & Life Lessons.
Thursday, March 11
Out of all the amazing experiences I have had in my mere twenty years of life, I think our adventure in the Bayou definitely tops the chart. This experience was satisfying on so many different levels. Like Bekah so eloquently explained, the company on the trip was like no other. Going on a week-long trip with eleven strangers can be daunting, but the harmony of our group was astonishing. I mean we sat at Starbucks talking until they kicked us out! There was not one fight or quarrel, even when hot topics arose. Each of us were very diverse and I think that is one strength our team had. I am so grateful that I was able to get to know each person. My one regret is that I did not meet these individuals sooner.
Another rewarding experience on the trip was the physical labor. The group as a whole was not sure what to expect diving into this experience, but it was comforting that we were diving in together. Everyone had their specialties on the work site, Kelly and Chelsey can now install siding on your house in two seconds flat, and Karen and Bekah could nail in soffit to any porch roof. There were cuts, bruises and soreness, but nothing a little Ibuprofen couldn’t handle. By the end of the week Chelsea could hammer in a nail in less than five hits (which was a big improvement), we were using power tools with confidence and climbing onto ladders forgetting our fear of heights. We were able to make achievements both physically and mentally. I think we could now do some mean home improvements if anyone is looking for a construction crew!!
By far the most gratifying aspect of our spring break adventure was helping those in need. After touring the devastation that still remains in New Orleans five years after Katrina, it was apparent that there is so much more mending to be done. But with all the hurt and destruction, we were very lucky to see the light that Mack, Smitty, and Ronald are creating after this storm. Going on that tour and hearing those men’s stories really hit all of us and gave us even more motivation for the work week ahead. For me the moment that gave me chills happened when we were looking at the holes in the rooftops that functioned as the only escape for the hurricane victims. Hearing about what these people went through and what they are still battling is heartbreaking, but they are slowly but surely trying to rebuild their lives and their roots in New Orleans.
I think the biggest lesson we could learn from our week in the bayou is the kindness and selflessness shown by Mack, Ronald and Smitty. They are resilient after losing everything and are helping others even when they need help themselves.