By Priscilla Wright
The New Orleans mini-term is unique in relation to Union’s other mini-terms because of the community service component. Prior to enrolling in this mini-term, I was looking for a chance to travel and explore a part of our country with which I was unfamiliar, as well as an opportunity to meet other Union students.
The first week of the mini-term was spent at a church in New Orleans. The trip started out the way I expected; our workdays began in the morning at homes that had been destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. We did basic construction work involving insulation, sheet rocking, and flooring. With so many of us eager to work, we were able to finish the busy work that needed to be completed while the professional and skilled construction workers focused on the more complex tasks. In the evenings, speakers would join us for dinner and discuss various issues that were brought forth by the disaster.
On our last day in New Orleans, we went to a small school that doubled as a local grocery store known as the Blair Grocery, located in the Lower Ninth Ward. The school is a former home that has been transformed into a grocery store that grows its own vegetables for profits that stay in the community. The handful of students who attend the school, which is not recognized by the government, cultivate the land in addition to classroom activities. This was the most rewarding day of the entire trip for me. The opportunity to get to know several of the children in the Lower Ninth Ward gave me a stronger perspective on the issue of poverty in New Orleans.
One aspect of our experience in New Orleans that I look back on with mixed feelings is how we divided our time. Our days were filled with working on houses and interacting with speakers, which left little time to explore the city and get a feel for its rich culture. Many of us felt that the culture of New Orleans is so unique that we wished we had been able to experience more of it and interact more with locals. When we left New Orleans, I felt as if I had only scratched the surface of an amazing city.
The second week of our mini-term was spent with the Houma Native Americans in Dulac, located near the wetlands. This week was by far the most challenging, as we were pushed to our limits in ways I’m not sure we were truly prepared for. The first home we worked on had two mentally challenged adults living alone together, one of whom was in a wheelchair. They were living in extreme poverty and relying on the church we were staying in to survive. I remember giving them a bag of plain white rice and seeing how excited they were about having it for dinner. It was at this house that we were pushed the furthest. It began with us cleaning up outside and fixing minor things throughout the house.
However, the day slowly spiraled out of control as we encountered issues with severe mold we were not equipped to handle. We were forced to either compromise finishing the job we had started or our personal safety, prompting intense debates between students and faculty. The fact that each of us had come on this trip wanting to help as much as possible made us struggle to realize how to work together in the face of our limitations.
As Union students, we are very privileged, especially compared to many of the people with whom we worked during our mini-term. We wanted to rebuild their homes to our standards and give them a life similar to the ones we have; this task is near impossible. It was very difficult to walk away and leave the two mentally challenged individuals to eat white rice for dinner and sleep in a home so infested with mold that it could be smelled outside.
As painful as parts of this mini-term were, I experienced the most personal growth that I have in a long time. I walked away with a completely new view of volunteerism.