The Final Hours Saturday, Mar 19 2016 

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Students working with David Young, March 2016.

I’m finally taking a breather. Sitting in Community Coffee drinking my third cafe au lait today. I wonder if this has something to do with my trouble sleeping? I am taking a pause before some serious Mardi Gras Indian activity tonight,  as it St. Joseph’s Day; even though the date is more closely tied to the Sicilians, it is the Indians’ prime night for masking. That will be followed by some music and tomorrow, even a larger gathering of Indians. For now, I’ll enjoy the relative quiet of the coffee house.

About an hour and a half ago, I saw the 19 students and five student leaders cram their luggage, sleeping bags, beads, and themselves into four minivans for the 1600 mile trip back to New Hampshire. They’ll be leaving the warm weather of the past week for possible snow in Virginia and back home in New England. Many were wistful about leaving, but you could almost hear the gears switch from beignets to books and homework.

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Work at Flood Street, March 2016.

Thursday was St. Patrick’s Day, but celebration would have to wait; work assignments remained the same. The Zulus got more involved in construction on expanding David Young’s aquaculture system. On Friday, he took them on a tour of his organization’s gardens, orchards and ponds that are scattered throughout the Lower Ninth Ward. The crew working at the lowernine.org house finished much of the shingling of the damaged portion of the roof. Only the weather on Friday kept them from finishing the task. The Baratarians primarily continued prep work over on the home on Flood, but by the end of the week more of them had the opportunity to do some painting. The same held for the crew on Delery Street

Thursday night brought the Downtown St. Patrick’s Day Parade. We gathered at the intersection of Royal and Esplanade to watch this relatively modest, yet spirited parade. Afterwards, most of the students followed the parade into the French Quarter, while most of the leaders stayed in the Marigny. The air was heavy, yet thunder showers failed to chase revelers of fof Bourbon Street. Folks got to bed a bit later than most nights, but then, they had a partial day of work left and it was predominately a wash out.

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Backstreet Cultural Museum, March 2016

As the students crossed the Industrial Canal on Friday afternoon, they left the Lower Ninth, the taco truck, the sandwiches from the Arabi Market, and fine folks at lowernine.org. However, before they kicked around New orleans one last night, I took them to the Backstreet Cultural Museum, a Treme landmark just a couple of blocks from the community center. The museum holds dozens of beautifully crafted Indian suits and second line memorabilia. In addition, our guide had masked as an Indian for several decades and was a wealth of information about both the suits and the tradition.

While many students headed over the the Warehouse District, I met up with former student and leader Theresa Conn and her UNH roommate. We went to Adolfo’s, a highly regarded Creole-Italian restaurant on Frenchmen Street. We began with mussels in a garlic sauce. The entrees were magnificent, literally topped off with the chef’s “ocean sauce,” a peppery creation with a mound of crab meat, plentiful shrimp and crawfish tails.

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Kermit Ruffins, March 2016

After dinner we parted ways and I crossed the street to see trumpet player/vocalist Kermit Ruffins at the Blue Nile.He played a healthy collection of his best-known songs, but as the clock rolled past ten, I knew I had to go back and get some rest. More storms had rolled through so that I had to dodge showers while walking back to the community center.

Because the students had done most of the cleaning of the community center on Friday afternoon, there was little to do Saturday save packing the vans. Everyone went into the Quarter for one final time, mostly to finish shopping for souvenirs and visit the French Market. The Meters got a late start, because as

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The Meters, March 2016

winners of the scavenger hunt, they received a breakfast on me. I picked the Flora Gallery and Coffee Shop on the recommendation of Kyle Murphy. It is a funky place on  the edge of the Bywater at the intersection of Royal and Franklin. The service was a bit slow for a group our size, but I believe the students appreciated both the relaxed time and the resident cats, before getting back in the van for the trip.

I met all four groups back at the community center at noon to see them off. They left on time without a hitch. And now I can begin worrying about their well-being on the return trip. It will be great to see them in class on Thursday, but for the time-being, I’m going to enjoy a couple of days of down time.

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Flora Gallery and Coffee Shop, March 2016.

 

 

 

Hump Day Thursday, Mar 17 2016 

After ten years of doing this, some rather strong patterns emerge. That is not suggest to the group any one year is like that of any other. However, once mid-week arrives a sort of funk surfaces. The adrenaline of the trip and an action-packed Sunday has worn off. The realization work in the service others is not glamorous nor worthy of decoration. And perhaps, the most important, this long strange journey is halfway over. Then it’s back to Durham, NH and the resolution of this current semester.

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Hannah painting on Flood Street, March 2016

Tuesday is the the precursor to this realization. Trip participants are free from the first day jitters, the uncertainty, and the awareness that you are taking directions from someone you never met until 10 minutes earlier. By Tuesday, students feel more comfortable and sometimes, perhaps too comfortable. You can become too sure of yourself, discover workarounds, or that nice shady spot to retire to when it gets hot.

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Scraping and sanding on Delery Street, March 2016

In addition, Tuesday brought some minor changes to assignments as one group moved to a nearly finished house on Delery Street to prep and paint trim and porch railings. The rest of class continued scraping and painting on Flood Street and roofing on the lowernine.org house.

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Brian, Emmy, Bryan, Tess, and Emily. Veterans of the 2014 NOLA trip, March 2016

The class ordered poboys, muffalottas, and other fare from the Arabi Grocery for a picnic at the Chalmette Battlefield, the site of the Battle of New Orleans (January 8, 1815). The food and weather were both glorious. After work that afternoon, the students visited the hardest hit part of the Lower Ninth, where blocks of homes were swept away by the massive breach in the levee on the Industrial Canal. In spite of the collection of colorful and innovative homes build by Brad Pitt’s foundation, among others, an increased reality of what took place in this area was sobering; and it helped the students connect viscerally with why they are here.

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Mowing around the beehives at Capstone, March 2016

Wednesday brought some more changes to work assignments, as part of the roofing crew moved to work with David Young, founder of Capstone, which grows fruit and vegetables, raises animals, and produces honey on vacant lots in the Lower Ninth. Its products help connect residents of this “food desert,” where there is not a supermarket within miles, with fresh healthy food. They worked making minor repairs, mowing vacant lots, and fashioning a filtration for aquaculture. The other groups worked on their ongoing projects.

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Dr. Emilie Leumas with Lina, St. Louis Cathedral, March 2016

While their day was beginning, I took one of my student to meet with Dr. Emilie Leumas, Director of the Office of Archives and Records for the Archdiocese. She gave us a tour of the historic Ursuline Convent and the St Louis Cathedral; the information she provided us, as well as a videotaped interview, should provide my student with plenty of information for her video project on the history and cultural significance of the cathedral. And it provided me with a chance to see and experience things I had never seen in all of my visits to the Crescent City.

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No caption needed, March 2016

After work and and a good washing, the UNH crew reconvened at Laura Paul, the Director of lowernine.org, for the volunteer cookout. In addition to enabling students to meet homeowners and be swarmed by neighborhood children from this historic Holy Cross district of the Lower Ninth, it provided them culinary treats, as well. Chuck, a long-time volunteer, cooked up a cooler full of the largest crawfish I have ever see. He rounded out the boil with potatoes, corn, brussels sprouts, mushrooms, and an artichoke. And if that were not enough, the person on the grill was Stan Hays, a “Chopped Grill Masters” finalist and co-founder of Operation BBQ Relief, which has provided over 35,000 meals in norther. Louisiana in the past week. Even after chowing down on the crawfish boil, the assembly laid waste to burgers, hotdogs, and some amazing barbecued chicken. A passing thunderstorm passed to our north as we enjoyed a warm, humid convivial evening just blocks from the Mississippi.

It was a good day.

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Lowernine.org cookout, March 2016

Up on the Roof Wednesday, Mar 16 2016 

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Orientation at lowernine.org, March 2016

Our first work day broke beautifully and although the previous day’s activities should have taken their toll, most members of the New Orleans class, leaders, and alumni seemed eager to get started with lowernine.org. We met in the courtyard of lowernine.org for orientation and to be introduced to our crew chiefs and lowernine.org staff. Laura Paul, executive director of lowernine.org, described both the extent of damage done in the Lower Ninth and the significance of continued volunteer efforts to bring the neighborhood back.

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House on Flood Street, March 2016

The group roughly split in two, with half going to Flood Street and the rest at lowernine.org. The house on Flood Street looked familiar because we had a crew working on it a couple of years ago. It is pretty close to be handed back to the owners, save some scraping and painting of interior trim. At lowernine.org, the work was a little more pressing, as last week’s rains exposed some leaks in the roof. As a result, the students there divided between removing old roofing material and filling the new dumpster in the lot across the street.

Happily, the students appeared reasonably well equipped to handle the tedium, the dirt, and the sun. Nevertheless, everyone was glad to take a break for lunch. Most brought sandwiches hastily made in the morning, while a few others visited the taco truck parked at Claiborne Avenue and Tupelo Street (excellent choice, by the way). As has also become a tradition, we gathered on the Mississippi River levee at the end of Reynes Street next to

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Roofing at lowernine.org, March 2016

the shuttered Holy Cross school. The spot affords a grassy area (watch the fire ants!) from which to view downtown, the shipping coming up and down the river, and the rising surge of water flowing down from the flooding upstream. Leaving that spot might have been the hardest part of the day.

The work began to wind down after four and everyone eventually made it back across the Industrial Canal for much needed showers and spaghetti dinner prepared by the leaders. Afterwards, the four groups would be to their biggest challenge of the day: the fifth running of the French Quarter Scavenger Hunt.

The brainchild of former students and trip leaders, Kyle Murphy and Maddie Sadowski, the scavenger hunt has become a highly competitive way to orient students to wonders of the French Quarter and the City that tries to contain it. Kyle has run the contest annually, since moving to New Orleans in 2012. And he uses his local knowledge and good-hearted sadism to refine it each year.

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French Quarter Scavenger Hunt, 2016 edition

The object is for each group (this year the Baby Dolls, Baratarians, Meters, and Zulus) to take an identical list of forty plus clues, scramble about the Quarter documenting each found item with a cellphone photograph, and meet in front of St, Louis Cathedral in two hours. Kyles is the sole judge of the correctness of the visual evidence. The tie breaker is the best photo of  Bill Ross look-alike, for which I serve as judge. The winning group wins breakfast on me, to be delivered on the Saturday morning before they depart.

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Bill Ross look-alike, March 2016 [selfie by Morgan Baumgartner, left]

Although the archives are somewhat sketchy in the regard, Kyle and I believe that the previous record had been 33 or 34, but of course we lack evidence to support or refute such malleable facts.In addition, the tie breaker had never come into play. This night changed all that. When tallied, the first group scored 34, another 33, and the Meters and Baratarians came in with an astounding total of 38 points. When all was said and done, the Meters had the best Bill look-alike. So the 2016 trophy and breakfast goes them. And it would go down in the record books; that is, if we managed to keep any.

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Lunch on the levee, March 2016

Hitting the Ground Running Tuesday, Mar 15 2016 

It has been about a day and a half since we collectively arrived in New Orleans. Is spite of flooding in the south and related thunderstorms, neither Southwest 737s or minivans, ran into weather delays. A burning tractor trailer in East Tennessee led to frustrating delays for of the two groups; however we were all safely in New Orleans by late afternoon on Saturday, March 12th.

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Kyle and Bill, Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Parade 2016

Two of the groups arrived in time to take part in the Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Parade Uptown. And, as they would find out firsthand over the next 24 hours, in New Orleans participation in parades is strongly encouraged. Whether it catching throws or passionately engaging with marchers for St. Paddy’s or dancing in a second line, you are generally part of the event.

At 5:30 in the afternoon, all four groups converged on the North Rampart Community Center, which is tucked in the the northeast corner of the French Quarter. Director “Coach” Parker welcomed us and provided the students with combination tour, orientation, and history lesson. The class was impressed with the facility; it would take a while for them to realize how good the location is.

In what has become a New Orleans trip, first-night tradition, the students headed over to the Joint, in the Bywater, an excellent barbecue place in a town not famous for its barbecue. With our arrival, the line quickly went out the door onto Mazant Street. It took a while by the end of the line the choice of smoked meats began to dwindle, but everyone was seated, fed, and left quite full, thank you. A few students braved exhaustion and took a brief walk into the Quarter, but most took advantage of hot showers and the potential for a full night’s sleep.

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Jazz Mass at St. Augustine’s, March 2016.

The next morning, most students ventured two blocks into Treme to attend the Jazz mass at St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic. I warned them that it was long, but for me it is a “not-to-be-missed” part of any visit to New Orleans, and I guess it’s hard to hide that level of sentiment. The students immediately felt the community and faith of the congregation of this, the oldest African-American Catholic Church in the nation’s first black neighborhood.

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Students with Mardi Gras Indian, March 2016

It was the perfect start to a day that appeared focused on both Treme and New Orleans parade culture. After mass, the class gathered at Congo Square in Louis Armstrong. This spot was where African slaves were permitted to drum, dance, and sell their wares on Sunday. And in the process, contributed to the preservation of African rhythms that became one of the catalysts for the development of jazz. And while waiting to link up with this Sunday’s second line parade, students were treated to the sights and sounds of Mardi Gras Indians who had marched down from Bayou St. John.

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Second Line, Esplanade Avenue, March 2016.

The Keep ‘N It Real Second Line appeared to be more elusive, or at least, it took longer for it to make its way towards where we were waiting. We ended up walking over to Claiborne and St. Bernard. Students first appeared taken aback by the singing, dancing, twerking, horn playing crowd that enveloped us, but most second lined through the Seventh Ward and Treme, and a few followed it all the way back to Bayou St. John. It was a big hit.

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Li’l Dizzy’s, March 2016

Appropriately, we reconnected at Li’l Dizzy’s, an Afro-Creole restaurant on the edge of Treme. Once again, we were treated to the best gumbo in the City, along with fried chicken, greens, macaroni and cheese, and bread pudding, all washed down with brewed ice tea. We tried valiantly, but the buffet won in the end. Some went back to the Center to rest after a full day of activities, while others followed the siren’s song of the French Quarter.

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Harry “Swamp Thing” Cook, Hot 8 Brass Band, March 2016.

At 10pm, we met up at the Howlin’ Wolf in the warehouse district for a performance by the Hot 8 Brass Band. Most had stereotyped images of brass band music, likely picturing a cross between marching band and traditional jazz. They were totally unprepared  for what hit them. In the end, most was stay through both sets to funked up music in a packed, brick room. For them a day of music, dancing, and traditional Creole cooking, would come to an exhausted, yet satisfying end. A day in which entertainment tested endurance and highlighted new and unexpected experiences.

And then there would be work.

The Night Before Friday, Mar 11 2016 

Flying out in a few hours. Trying to remember the feeling ten years ago when I was flying down to volunteer months after Katrina. I was a 50 year-old, father of three, and I was terrified. Travelling alone. The prospect of working with people I had never met. And then, of course, what would I find in the ruins of a great American city?

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Gutting houses, home in Chalmette, LA, March 2006.

Long story short: I survived, even after being robbed as I slept in my hotel room. I hated parts of it, but the experience changed my life. A year later, I made the trip better by adding a healthy portion of UNH students, five of whom were from my initial New Orleans class. And I had the time of my life living through through their eyes and reactions to the experience. An ice storm in Boston cancelled my flight home and I had to stay over the weekend. As a result, I got to experience my first Mardi Gras Indian parade. I got home two days late, after three flights that began before daybreak in Jackson, Mississippi. I  ended up missing a Monday night class for a course I was teaching for the University of Rhode Island library school and I was worn to a nub. As we exited the turnpike to head to our home, my wife, sensing my exhaustion said: “Well, you don’t have to go back next year.” My silence said otherwise. And she knew it.

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Super Sunday, Uptown Mardi Gras Indian Parade, March 2007.

Somehow, I’ve spent one sixth of my life doing this thing year in and year out, and it hasn’t grown old. Ten years and some 250 students later, it remains just as fresh, just an exciting, and just as exhausting as it ever was. My wife, and my now adult children, and my friends have grown accustomed to it. It is a part of me and happily, they like me enough to put up with it and my conversations that begin with, “Well, it’s just like this or that in New Orleans…”

The students in this, the tenth New Orleans course are in the mid-Atlantic, passing through Pennsylvania en route to a sliver of Maryland and West Virginia, respectively. The day began with worried calls from parents, rightly concerned by reports of flooding in Louisiana. I too, have been worried, monitoring conditions continuously, calling friends in New Orleans, and was able to report that while New Orleans was soggy, things there were OK. And after hours of studying weather.com the 1579 mile route between Durham, NH and North Rampart Street appears strangely free from rain.

So, I go to bed. 3:45am will come soon enough. As always, I am worried for their safety, but confident that I will see them, perhaps wet and bedraggled, tomorrow afternoon, along the parade route of the Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Parade. If not there, we’ll reconnoitre at the community center that we will call home for the next week. And then we’ll embark on another one of those weeks in New Orleans, that messed up, enigmatic, magical place, that year after year manufactures experiences that none of us will ever forget.

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Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Parade (in the rain), March 2009.

Spring Break 2016 Tuesday, Mar 8 2016 

In a few days we will be heading to New Orleans to volunteer with lowernine.org during spring break. And I don’t underestimate the sacrifice that you are making when compared with what some of your fellow Wildcats will be doing at the same time. The work itself will be memorable. You will be tested. You will learn new things. You might for an instant wonder why you are there. But I can guarantee that you will come away with an appreciation of a great city, the challenges that it faces and, more than anything, a love for the people who live there.

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Orientation with Laura Paul, lowernine.org, Lower Ninth, March 2013.

In addition, your leaders and I are planning activities to fill the time when you are not working. And we think you’ll like the results of our brainstorming. Here are some examples of what is store for you, that is, after that 1600 mile drive from New Hampshire:

Saturday, March 12th – arrive in NOLA early afternoon; go directly to Irish Channel St. Patrick Parade; check in @ Community Center afterwards; dinner with your group;

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Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Parade, March 2013.

 Sunday, March 13th – Jazz mass @ St. Augustine’s, 10-11:30am (optional); Keep ‘N  It Real Second Line (schedule TBA); dinner at Lil’ Dizzy’s, 5:30pm; Hot 8 Brass Band@ Howlin Wolf, 10pm (entrance covered);

Monday, March 14th – Arrive @ lowenine.org, 8am; lunch on the Mississippi River levee in Holy Cross; French Quarter Scavenger Hunt, 8-10pm;

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French Quarter Scavenger Hunt (finale), March 2013.

Tuesday, March 15th – Visit to Chalmette Battlefield @ lunch, weather permitting; and visit to Bayou Sauvage, after work:

Wednesday, March 16th – House of Dance and Feathers, lunch or after work; cookout at Laura Paul’s house, 6pm;

Thursday, March 17th – Downtown St. Patrick’s Parade, Royal Street, starts at 6pm; Rock and Bowl, Zydeco Night, 9 pm (entrance covered);

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Glen David Andrews with UNH students at the Rock and Bowl, 2008

Friday, March 18th – Backstreet Cultural Museum, after work (entrance covered) and St.Charles Streetcar to Carrollton and dinner at the Camellia Grill;

Saturday, March 19th – Cleanup at the Community Center; Bill’s breakfast with scavenger hunt winners (my choice); Saturday morning in the French Quarter in its glory; Congo Square Rhythms Festival, Armstrong Park, 11am (free).

Sniff, sniff. Head back to New Hampshire.

 

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    Members of the 2015 New Orleans class with Errol and Esther Joseph, March 2015.

JoAnn Guidos Monday, Mar 7 2016 

One of my great pleasures, in the wake of reading Dan Baum’s wonderful Nine Lives, has been meeting and getting to know JoAnn Guidos, owner of Kajun’s Pub in the Marigny. Kajun’s is the place where all patrons, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. are welcome AND made to feel welcome. And JoAnn is the person to enforce that notion. In addition to meeting with the 2014 New Orleans class, JoAnn allowed me the opportunity to see progress on the renovation of her early 19th century Creole cottage behind Kajun’s, of course. I snapped this shot during a visit in June 2014.

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JoAnn Guidos, Faubourg Marigny, June 2014.

The New Orleans Class Times Ten Sunday, Mar 6 2016 

I never thought it would come to this. Ten years ago this week, I traveled to New Orleans for the first time following the flooding wrought by Katrina. I spent a week with eleven strangers gutting houses in Chalmette, Louisiana. It was dirty, sweaty, heart-wrenching, and sometimes stomach-churning work. It was the best work I ever hated and it changed me forever.

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Chalmette National Battlefield, Chalmette, LA.

For the most, I spent the evenings, exhausted and contemplative. A great American city nearly destroyed and, in March 2006, who could guess what its future held. However, its storied past was inviolable. I spent several evenings, on a bench among the graves of Civil War era, African-American soldiers at the storm-ravaged Chalmette National Cemetery. On the open expanse in front of me, Andrew Jackson and a diverse army of militiamen, Creoles, free blacks, and Native Americans, defeated the British Army, replete with men who had vanquished Napoleon. What stories could that flooded soil before me, from Lake Pontchartrain to the Mississippi to the Seventeenth Street Canal, tell Americans about our past…and our future. Those ruminations gave birth to the New Orleans class.

When I got back to New Hampshire, I began laying the groundwork for the New Orleans course. I read as much as a could, listened intently, and tried to fill myself with knowledge about this mesmerizing city. It was not easy. It was not linear. It seldom made sense. But the was glorious.

In January 2007, I stood in front of 25 students in the very first New Orleans class. Unlike today’s students, they had with a mature level of cognition watched as the horrific events of August/September 2005 unfolded on the evening news. The tragedy was still warm. The images were still etched in our collective minds. And New Orleans’ future still hung in the balance. Nevertheless, they were subjected to my pedantic and text heavy PowerPoint presentations, yet they survived in good cheer.

Seven of my students travelled with me to the Gulf Coast that year. It was not yet part of the course, but I saw in their eyes the importance of being there. Of hearing the stories. Of seeing the damage. And of absorbing the culture through their eyes, their ears, their tastebuds, and their pores. Through their service and their experience they connected with something the rest of the class did not. And they were the better for it.

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Lower Ninth Ward, March 2006

I was asked to teach the course again and in saying “yes,” I asked if the service learning trip could be made part of the course. And to my surprise, I was told by the forward thinking head of the Honors program, which served as a part-time home for the  class, “of course.”

And I ran with it. It has not been easy. Initially, I depended upon a student organization to do most of the heavy lifting for organizing the trip, but in due time we both realized that we were at cross purposes. More recently, I am running the trip on my own with some excellent support from the College of Liberal Arts Dean’s Office, their Business Service Center, and the aforementioned Honors Program.

In the meantime, we have worked with number of different agencies in such places as New Orleans, St. Bernard Parish, Slidell, LA and Waveland MS. We have slept in condemned schools, abandoned homes, condemned orphanages, churches, and community centers. We have worked with Habitat for Humanity, Catholic Charities, and most recently, lowernine.org. But ten years after the storm, the spirit and the love and the joy of the residents still move us. It is the greatest gift that we can receive.

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Madonna Manor, UNH housing 2009-2011, March 2009.

So this, the 10th New Orleans class, will have to stand beside the rest, and in some respects, that will be tough. Students will heading down by four minivans on Friday, March 11th and should be arriving on Saturday afternoon. We will try to cram as much culture in before we embark on a week of service. But among the sights and sound, the food and the music, it will be the goodwill and appreciation of the people of places like the Lower Ninth Ward that will find a place closest to our hearts. And I can’t wait.

It has been over ten years since Katrina. This will be my fourteenth trip to New Orleans since then. Including this year’s trip, I will have accompanied some 250 UNH students on their journey to help people far different from them. I have witnessed their joy, their recognition, and their growth in the process.

As I write this, I try to picture what I would have thought, back in March 2006, if I knew then then what I know now. New Orleans, along with its constant and new challenges, has survived until the next storm. Could I imagine teaching this course for the tenth time and getting something new and affirming out of each class? And would I, knowing the time that it takes, not just to keep the class and assignments fresh, but to budget, to plan travel, to secure housing, to guarantee work slots, to plan events, etc., be willing to keep it going. Here. Ten years out. I have but one answer to that: you bet.

But, I never thought it would come to this.

A Door on Tricou Street Tuesday, Jan 27 2015 

Door on Tricou Street, June 2011.

Door on Tricou Street, June 2011.

In June 2011, I was scheduled to speak at a conference in Baton Rouge, LA. I flew down early and met up with a student advisee, Kendra, who was in New Orleans researching Mardi Gras Indian traditions.  In the two days before my conference, we decided to volunteer for Operation Helping Hands, an offshoot of Catholic Charities that my class had volunteered with for three straight spring breaks. The first day we did some work on a home in Treme, but on the second day we worked on a home in the Holy Cross neighborhood in the Lower Ninth Ward. It was my first day of many volunteering in the Lower Ninth.

It was a non-descript shotgun house on Tricou Street, about halfway between St. Claude Avenue and the river. We were working on the punchlist for the home that was being turned over to its owners the next day. Most of the tasks were fairly mundane and towards the end of the day, Kendra and I were asked to paint the front door. Kendra, who had spent the previous summer volunteering with Operation Helping Hands, walked me through the process. As I painted the base coat, the door revealed itself to me. It had designs carved into the door panels, and I as I worked I began to see the chisel marks where a craftsman, perhaps even the original homeowner, had hand-carved them, one by one. And, as I applied the trim coat, I realized that I was not just painting a door, I was working on a living, functional piece of folk art.

Gardening in a Food Desert Sunday, Jan 25 2015 

David Young, Lizardi Street, June 2014.

David Young, Lizardi Street, June 2014.

Like many places in the Deep South, New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward is a food desert. In the years after Hurricane Katrina, there are no grocery stores selling low cost, fresh vegetables or unprocessed food. Residents who do not own a car must take a cab or a bus ride with transfers to buy food from the Walmart in Chalmette, Louisiana. But there is growing momentum to do something about this injustice. And a retired police chief from small-town Indiana is one of those tackling the problem.

David Young came to the Lower Ninth about six years ago to help build houses. He returned to Indiana, but it didn’t stick. Young returned to the Lower Ninth and has lived in New Orleans ever since. He built his first garden on the lot next to his home. It was a foreclosure that he purchased through the bank. Young soon realized that many of his neighbors had little access to fresh vegetables, so he expanded his operation. Today, he grows food and has planted orchards on 26 lots throughout the Lower Ninth. His nonprofit, Capstone, helps supply vegetables and fruit to those in need. That is, with the help of fellow nonprofits, volunteer labor, and some honey bees.

Harvest at the garden on Lamanche Street, June 2014.

Harvest at the garden on Lamanche Street, June 2014.

Many of the lots belong to lowernine.org, a local nonprofit which is dedicated the rebuilding and the long-term recovery of the Lower Ninth; it has turned the land over to Young until it is needed for building homes. The largest sublet is 12 contiguous lots on Lamanche Street — the “farm,” which houses most of the vegetable gardens. Young’s aim is food production, not model gardens, but the result is a huge improvement over the jungle-like growth that overwhelms many abandoned lots in the Lower Ninth. And from these lots Young has harvested and given away hundreds of pounds of food on an annual basis.

Obviously, Young has a hand in maintaining the garden plots, orchards, goats, and chickens that are part and parcel of Capstone’s activities. At the same time, his work is dependent of the labor of long-term volunteers, as well as short term volunteers from church groups, college campuses, or those who are just passing through New Orleans. In 2013, four guys from the UNH New Orleans class worked with Young to connect irrigation for a new orchard on North Roman Street. They worked all day breaking though a concrete walk, but the work and inspiration they drew from David Young energized them. As dirty and tired and blistered as they got, they were dying to go back to finish the job.

Bee wrangling on Andry Street, June 2014.

Bee wrangling on Andry Street, June 2014.

Oh, and the bees. Although I’m sure that Young had little notion that he would become an urban farmer, I bet he had even less an idea that he would become a bee wrangler. When he first started his gardens, Young noted a dearth of honey bees, so he installed a hive. Young’s bee-keeping skills were increasingly called upon as residents discovered hives of bees in abandoned houses or attics. When summoned, he suits up, looks to secure the queen, and generally moves the entire hive from where they are not wanted. As a result, Young now has over 20 hives going throughout the sites managed by Capstone.

And as Young looks to provide fresh food for the community, the bees are a powerful ally. The raw honey is highly sought after and its sale contributes mightily to finance Capstone’s community gardening. In fact, there is a waiting list whenever Young retrieves the bees’ sticky product. I’m on the second pint of Capstone honey and have put myself on the waiting list for the spring harvest. And believe me, it is well worth it.

For information about David Young, Capstone, and raw honey from the Lower Ninth Ward, check out Capstone’s website.

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