Abita Springs Thursday, Mar 15 2012 

I deeply miss the opportunity to have my students work in New Orleans with Operation Helping Hands. It’s not that the work is far different from what we are doing this week, but for the purposes of the New Orleans course, the chance to work in the neighborhoods and learn the streets, meet and talk to the people, and have them stop and thank you (and talk some more) is very important. And the young, full-time volunteers, most of them just out of college themselves, were fun to work with and provided my students with good role models.

Habitat for Humanity homes outside of Abita Springs, LA, March 2012.

That said, the experience of working with the two Habitat agencies in St. Tammany Parish and the housing at the Peace Mission Center has been great. The volunteer coordinators have been informative, helpful, and welcoming. And as always, I am amazed at the construction heads, crew chiefs, etc. that Habitat is able to put on site. They are born teachers; they are patient (to a remarkable degree), quick to assess skill levels, and always looking to make the experience a meaningful one for the volunteers. And it helps that I have a cracker jack group this year who are threatening to leave next week’s volunteers with nothing to do.

And, as anyone who knows me can tell you, I love visiting and learning about new places. For fear of online retribution, I will not list the handful of places for which this is not true. I’ll just leave it at that. Slidell has been a pleasure. The food is good, the people are friendly and almost as welcoming as those down the road in New Orleans, but we’re talking gold standard here. The terrain is pleasant, although I could do without all of the strip malls. I realize that this is, for the most part, a national epidemic, but it does seem that my native-South has perfected the blight.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to follow one of our groups over to their work with Habitat for Humanity St. Tammany–West. The work site was just outside of Abita Springs, which until then was just a name on one of my favorite regional beers (their Turbodog, to be exact, but their amber is good, too). It is a beautiful little community, just north of Mandeville. They’ve preserved much of their downtown, complete with tin roofed buildings, undisturbed trees, and locally-owned businesses.

Painting trim, Abita Springs LA, March 2012

The Habitat build was just to the west, and as you pulled off of the main road, you see a whole community, largely built by Habitat for Humanity. One of the crew estimates that nearly seventy homes in this area alone have been built by Habitat over the past two decades. That’s right. Before Katrina. We sometimes forget that events like Katrina, this spring’s tornadoes, etc. do not cause a shortage of quality, affordable housing in the richest country in the world, they only exacerbate it. And such events hopefully highlight the need for those who would rather forget about that fact. Habitat for Humanity does not forget. Their mission is to alleviate it, one house and one deserving family at a time.

Installing sub-flooring at homesite on Tupelo Street, Slidell LA, March 2012

The students were working with a wonderful crew of professional builders, young people, and those unable to truly retire, not becuase of economic need, but because they care. And the students, whether they realized it or not, had been paid a very high complement. The house they were working on was about to be turned over to a family, who had also had to put in considerable sweat equity — a Habitat requirement. There was a punchlist of items that had to be done before the papers are signed and usually, becuase these tasks can seem rather random, yet time sensitive, a crew member usually completes them. However, our group so impressed on Tuesday that they were there completing the punchlist: touching up trim and walls, installing screens; removing debris from the yard and shed; and pouring cement landings in front and back. It will be interesting to see what they are allowed to do the rest of the week.

The two groups working for St. Tammany-East Habitat for Humanity are not being left in the dust by the other. They are laying sub-flooring at one site, painting porches on completed homes, and power-washing in preparation for future paint jobs. The construction manager is complaing that they are moving so fast that he is worried about having work to do for the 32 volunteers arriving next week. He is giving them a late start on Friday; 10:00, rather than 6:45 a.m. I suspect it is both reward and an attempt to slow them down a bit. Needless to say, given the performance of this year’s class, both volunteer coordinators are eager to have us sign on for next year. And I just might.

After work, students returned to the Peace Mission Center for warm showers, some online time, to write in their journals (remember those journals!) and to shoot baskets or throw a football. They had very satisfying chicken pot pie and for those so inclined, veggie burgers, for dinner. For dessert was angel food cake with freshly made blueberry or strawberry sauce.

Left to right, Dr. Michael White, Kerry Lewis, Gregg Stafford, and Detroit Brooks, Xavier University, March 2012

After dinner, we drove across New Orleans to Xavier University of Louisiana for our annual fix of traditional jazz. There we met with Dr. Michael White, jazz clarinetist, composer, bandleader and holder of the Keller Endowed Chair in the Humanities of New Orleans Music and Culture. He and his quartet, which includes Kerry Lewis on bass, Detroit Brooks on banjo, and Gregg Stafford on trumpet and vocals, led us on a musical journey from the beginnings of jazz in New Orleans, up through one of Michael’s new compositions in the traditional idiom. I was especially taken with White’s channeling of Sidney Bechet while playing Gershwin’s “Summertime” and the ensemble’s performance of a newer composition “Give it Up” (Gypsy Second Line), a traditional-style tune with a hint of Eastern European flavor. One of my favorites. It was fun to see the recognition on the students’ faces when they played “Basin Street Blues” with Gregg Stafford on vocals. It was one of the ten tunes they had to learn for their mid term, just a week ago back in Durham.

We were joined by Joonhyung  and Desiree Cho. Joon has a masters degree from UNH and works in the intellectual property division of the LSU Agricultural Experiment Station. They had attended the conert with us before, but Joon, is known to the the class as the guy who provides us with a king cake during Carnival season. Last night, he also brought each student a small package of LSU-licensed rice. All he and Desiree got was good music and a pair of “UNH–New Orleans” tee shirts.

Walter "Wolfman" Washington, d.b.a., March 2012.

After the concert, you could see that the fatigue of the past two days had really set in. A small group of intrepid cultural warriors headed into the City, but most chose to make their way across the lake to the relative comfort of our base in Slidell. I went to Frenchmen Street where I caught a long and enjoyable set by bluesman Walter “Wolfman” Washington at d.b.a. It was tempting to stay for another, but as with the others, the Northshore beckoned.

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A Quiet Day in Slidell, LA Tuesday, Mar 13 2012 

I have probably driven through the Slidell area a dozen times, but only stopped to buy gas once or twice  — that is, until this past Saturday. Since then, I have joined my class as guests of the Peace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Slidell, Louisiana. Initially, the impulse for us to beat a path to the City, but the long van trip trip and late nights caught up with the group on Monday.

Students boarding the boats swamp tour, March 2012.

Some of the other groups began working for various agencies in the area, but our work week starts on Tuesday. After a somewhat slow start, students gathered for breakfast in the dining/meeting hall; then we went through orientation. Afterwards students had a couple of hours to go online, write in their journals, or just chill after three hectic days. I advised them to take advantage, because the next six days would bring hard work AND the long drive back to New Hampshire.

Our intrepid and extremely knowledgeable guide, Pearl River, March 2012.

We all got together in early afternoon a few miles east of Slidell along the banks of the Pearl River. There, we embarked on a swamp tour of the Pearl River basin. It was overcast and showery; the water high from spring rains and still a bit chilly for optimum sightings of large, scaly aquatic reptiles, i.e., the main reason we were there.

Time would prove that we were in the hands of knowledgeable and skilled guides. Over the next two hours, we were enlightened about local history, culture, and the insights of folks who are the antithesis of the fanciful caricatures presented by “reality” shows like “Swamp People.” And we saw some magnificent scenery, centuries old cypress, wild blue iris, and, most importantly, swamp critters.

Great blue heron on the Pearl River, March 2012.

We passed turtles trying to squeeze some sun out of the showers, water snakes, egrets, ibis, a broad winged hawk, and great blue herons. We took a narrow bayou up to an oxbow, the former, now bypassed  channel of the Pearl River. There, the water was warm enough for some gator activity. Not monsters by any means, but large and lively enough to entertain a bunch of students from New England. Our guide, with tremendous eloquence called them to the boat. A hot dog on a stick helped in the task, but only after he got there attention with his gatorese. Each alligator ate and swam back enough to get a good view of our departure. A fun and highly educational way to spend the afternoon. And certainly not something that I can replicate in the classroom.

Pirate's Alley, off of Jackson Square, after a rain, March 2012.

We returned to the Peace Mission Center for traditional Monday fare: red beans and rice prepared by Chef Stephanie. They were delicious and we did our part to make sure they did not have to deal with leftovers.

The students clearly took me seriously about resting up. They retired to the lounge for movies, quiet talk, and relaxation. The guys’ quarters are, to say the least, not lounge-worthy, and I did not want to infringe upon their social time. For that reason, I was forced into town to listen to music, walk about, and take some pictures of the rain-drenched streets. Nonetheless, it was still an early evening for me , too, as our work day on Tuesday begins at 6:45 a.m sharp.

Again, something of a public service warning: these daily posts during spring break are often done on the run, usually in a McDonald’s. I generally don’t have the time to review or edit them as I might usually, and the chances that I’ll go back and catch things is limited. In advance, let me apologize for typos (especially this year since I am using a netbook) and missing words. It goes with the territory, but if I can, I ‘d rather post as often as time allows, albeit imperfectly.

Spring Break 2012: St. Tammany Parish, LA Saturday, Feb 11 2012 

After three wonderful years of working with Operation Helping Hands in the neighborhoods, 2012 brings a change of scenery for the New Orleans class. Certainly we’ll be visiting the Crescent City as often as we can, but on this trip run by the UNH-Alternative Break Challenge, we’ll be working and sleeping across Lake Pontchartrain in St. Tammany Parish. Through the years, I had the pleasure of working/staying  in St. Bernard and Jefferson, so for me, it will nice to experience another part of Southern Louisiana.

Two thirds of the class (the Baratarians and Los Islenos groups) will be volunteering for  East St. Tammany Habitat for Humanity in and about Slidell, LA. The third group of nine, the Wild Magnolias, will commute over to Mandeville to work with Habitat for Humanity St. Tammany West. We will all be staying in Slidell at the Peace Mission Center, which is operated by the Peace Evangelical Lutheran Church to provide housing for those volunteering in the area.

And while we will be taking I-10 in and out of the City,  the leaders and I are planning outings near our home base. In addition to a swamp tour in the nearby Pearl River basin, it look forward to sampling life and meeting good people in a place that is new to all of us. And if the experience is half as enjoyable as communicating with them long distance, we are in for a great experience.