Local students work hard in Big Easy
Hurricane aid makes inspiration flow both ways
By: Kevin Ma
| Posted: Wednesday, Feb 19, 2014 06:00 am
Some St. Albert high school students got an up close look at the power of hope this month after helping to rebuild hurricane-struck New Orleans.
About 30 St. Albert Catholic High School (SACHS) students came home this week after a nine-day trip to New Orleans. The trip was part of an ongoing effort by the Oblate Youth Ministries to help residents of that city recover from 2005’s hurricane Katrina.
This is the second time that St. Albert Catholic has gone on this trip since the program started in 2011, said teacher Tom Feehan. (The trip rotates between SACHS, Sainte Marguerite d’Youville and Morinville Community High.)
Working in partnership with the Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in New Orleans, the students spent nine days volunteering in soup kitchens and rebuilding storm-damaged homes in the Louisiana city, Feehan said.
“We wanted to expose (students) to people who’ve really been pushed aside in that society.”
That meant serving food to and eating with homeless residents of New Orleans at a community centre each day.
The experience was a little intimidating at first, said student Amy LaBuick.
“It’s like, these are the people you avoid on the street and you’re almost scared of, and now you have to eat with them,” she said.
But those brief chats were often the highlight of the day for many of these residents, she noted.
“The little simple things you do can really make a difference in someone’s life.”
Student Quintin Philipson said he got to know a man named Tiny at the community centre. Tiny (who was actually quite large) told him that he and his friends had come to town for work. They never found any, and now spend their nights freezing in alleys and under bridges.
A few days into the trip, Tiny waved Philipson over and pulled a quarter out of his pocket – a Canadian quarter. Tiny told Philipson that he’d found the quarter on the street and that it had reminded him of the Canadian student. Tiny then gave Philipson the quarter.
Philipson said he was blown away by the gesture, and gave Tiny a small wooden cross in exchange.
“I still have that quarter,” he said.
Student Isabelle Durocher helped a woman named Ms. Ida get back into her home for the first time in eight years.
The home had been flooded, gutted, and (as part of relief measures following Katrina) raised about six feet off the ground on cinderblocks. But the home didn’t have any stairs.
“We had to go in through the floorboards,” Durocher said.
The students cleaned out the debris inside the house and built stairs to make it accessible, Feehan said. Future teams will renovate the inside to make it liveable.
“Her journey’s begun,” he said of Ida.
Student Emily Vilcsak was part of a team that helped restore the home of a Mr. Joseph, 88. A previous student team had fixed up the main floor of his home, but the second was still riddled with holes and mould.
The team cleaned the floors, painted the walls and, on the last day, surprised Joseph by getting him a new mattress.
“He broke down in tears,” Vilcsak recalled. “It warms my heart to know that, even though we didn’t do much, we did a lot in his perspective.”
A candle of hope
Philipson said the trip has given him new perspective on the importance of hope.
“Hope is the most essential thing about a human being,” he said. “Because of hope, they survived the hurricane. Because of hope, they had people like us come down to help them.”
Vilcsak said she sent a letter to Joseph earlier this week and hopes to keep in touch with him.
“Even just a smile can change someone’s outlook on their day,” she said, when asked what she’d learned from her trip.
“When you’re inspiring other people, they’re inspiring you.”