Six years ago, Hurricane Katrina landed on New Orleans’ doorstep and the city is still cleaning up the mess. The category 5 windstorm destroyed homes and disrupted many lives, killing more than 1,800 people. The beautiful, historic and cultural city was laid to waste. The few people who remained or came back are still trying to pick up the pieces and put everything back together again. Many houses are still empty. Lawns are overgrown. Neighbourhoods are abandoned.
Thankfully there has been an outpouring of support, sometimes from great distances. Even though St. Albert is about 4,000 kilometres away from the heart of the disaster, people here continue to be touched by the tragedy. When people anywhere need help, the easiest thing in the world to do is reach out.
Students of the world
That lesson has been taught twice locally in recent months. Back in February, a team of students from école Secondaire Ste. Marguerite d’Youville (ESSMY) spent some time on a mission to New Orleans. They preceded another group that went just last month. A group of 22 students and eight adult chaperones from St. Albert Catholic High School made the trip for eight days at the end of March.
That might not seem like a lot of time but that’s just perspective. Cleaning up after this massive natural disaster will take several years and the teenagers who went down to offer their services are still living the experience. It has changed them indelibly.
“We’ve been back for close to a month and they’re still talking about it every day,” said school career practitioner and organizer Teresa Rieger. “It had such a huge impact on them.”
Robyn Amerongen, Jade Guinchard and Vanessa Peynenburg were three members of that team. They were still in junior high school when the levees broke but conscience knows no age. When they heard that Rieger was setting up the mission, they signed up.
Enlisting was a privilege that didn’t come cheap either. The school had to raise $35,000 for the trip and all participating students were required to put down $400 of their own. This was not the sort of activity they thought they would spend their spring break doing.
“Never,” was Amerongen’s blunt response. Guinchard called St. Albert a “bubble” that she was happy to break out of in order to see the world as it really is.
Peynenburg, on the other hand, has always been interested in social justice in foreign countries. Her dream is to build schools in Africa.
“To be honest, this is something I’ve always really wanted to do. It’s just my nature. That’s what I love to do.”
She admitted there wasn’t any real way to prepare for what lay ahead.
“I just didn’t think that it would impact me in the way that it did.”
The experience of volunteering abroad was a new one to them. Their efforts were co-ordinated through the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal. That agency’s New Orleans Rebirth Volunteer Program offers practically anyone the chance to show their solidarity with the afflicted people of the Gulf Coast city.
It’s difficult to imagine how people will react under such duress. Their homes were destroyed and all of their possessions were scattered in the gale force winds and murky tides.
The three young women admitted the reason for their humanitarian efforts wasn’t totally based on their Catholic beliefs but what they learned had some major spiritual implications.
“I feel like all of our faiths were strengthened while we were there,” Peynenburg said, with Amerongen and Guinchard agreeing. “It re-exposed us to the Catholic faith.”
“The people there have so much light and faith themselves,” Guinchard continued, adding a story about one resident who received help from the team. “One of our girls asked Ms. Ava, ‘Do you still believe in God?’ She said, ‘Of course. There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s God.’ She was shocked that we even asked it because she just has so much faith. She said, ‘If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be where I am’.”
The team discovered that, despite the tremendous losses and the relative lack of recovery for thousands of people, there isn’t an epidemic of depression or total anarchy. Neighbourhoods of residents have found strength in numbers through their community churches and other social groups.
Peynenburg said, “Literally, every person that we talked to mentioned God at some point in time. It just really showed how important their faith is to them in order to get past what they’ve been through.”
So the trip became an object lesson in what it really takes to survive and be happy in an unpredictable world.
Rieger chimed in with her thoughts. She said that material goods don’t make people happy; connecting with others and the camaraderie of togetherness is what’s important. People might just be living better lives without worldly things.
“I think that part of it also was just about being away from everything here and just being there together as a community amongst ourselves. That’s what I think had such a big impact, just actually getting to know people so intimately and finding out what we don’t share when we’re here.”
They went away to help fix some problems for a bunch of strangers and try to improve their lots in life. There is an old credo that you have never really lived until you’ve done something for someone who can never repay you.
But these students got more than just a character-building exercise. For many of them, they found a purpose in their own lives. They discovered themselves and in so doing, they also forged strong bonds with the unlikeliest of schoolmates. These three said they never thought that they would be friends with each other but now they are the close companions, sharing the common thread of a profound moment.
“We never really knew each other before the experience and now we’re best friends. We would never have thought … that you would be that close and know that much about someone within the week. We opened up so much,” related Amerongen.
“Lots of these kids come into my office and they seem so much happier now,” Rieger ended.