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.

 

 

 

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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.

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.

The New Orleans Class: Take Nine Monday, Jan 19 2015 

Chalmette National Battlefield, Chalmette, LA.

Chalmette National Battlefield, Chalmette, LA.

In March 2006, months after Hurricane Katrina, I went to New Orleans to volunteer for the first time. We were gutting houses, which was grueling and nasty work. After racing to the showers and the service laundry at the volunteer camp, we had some precious downtime before dinner. More often than not, I’d wander over to the Chalmette Battlefield, site of the Battle of New Orleans, and the adjacent Chalmette National Battlefield. There, on a decrepit bench under the live oaks, I’d read or muse in the company of the dead African-American soldiers from the Civil War dead, buried in the cemetery behind me. There, surrounded by so many stories, is where the idea for the New Orleans course first emerged.

When I got back to New Hampshire, I started reading everything I could find on New Orleans while piecing together a proposal for a first year seminar on the City. It was approved and in January 2007 I began teaching the New Orleans class for the first time. I had a full class of 25 and I proceeded to inflict my newfound knowledge on them with text-heavy PowerPoint slides. I tried to communicate all that knew and they tried their best to sort through it all. It was a learning process for all.

I returned to New Orleans that year and seven members of the class went to the Gulf Coast with UNH-Alternative Break Challenge, for which I had arranged volunteers slots with Habitat for Humanity, UNH Intervarsity, or on their own. We had a blast taking in the sights and sounds of New Orleans while working in and around Musicians’ Village in the Upper Ninth Ward. As I watched my students on the trip, I realized that they were able to link the classroom with experience, and in the process, their learning was much different than for those students who remained behind. When the Honors Program approached me to teach it as an honors course in 2008, I asked if I could require all of the students to go on the service learning trip. They* said “yes” and you can guess the rest of the story.

St. Patrick's Day Parade on Frenchmen Street, March 2009.

St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Frenchmen Street, March 2009.

So here we are, the day before the beginning of the ninth installment of the New Orleans class. Katrina has become more distant, the PowerPoint slides have grown lighter, and the service learning trip still has the power to be a life altering experience. Along the way, while centered around New Orleans, we’ve experienced the Crescent City, the West Bank, St. Bernard Parish, St. Tammany Parish, and Waveland, Mississippi. 200 students and student trip leaders, almost all former students in the class, have danced in second lines, listened to everything from traditional jazz to zydeco to sissy bounce, walked with Mardi Gras Indians, finagled “throws” in numerous parades (no flesh has exposed in the process, but there was some smooching with old Irish and Italian guys), and consumed hundreds of po boys.

And in less than two months, we’re going to do it all over again. For the second year, we’ll be staying at Camp Hope in Arabi, Louisiana. And for the third time, we’ll be working with the wonderful folks at lowernine.org in the Lower Ninth Ward. We’ll experience the Downtown St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Mardi Gras Indians on St. Joseph’s Night, some Afro-Creole cooking, alumnus Kyle Murphy’s French Quarter Scavenger Hunt and, weather permitting, the massing of the Mardi Gras Indian gangs on “Super Sunday.” And more importantly, we’ll work on homes in the still distressed Lower Ninth Ward and, in the process, meet some of the nicest and most open people in the world. In other words, the class will come alive. Within days of taking their mid-term exam, students will have hands-on experience with what they have learned.

New Orleans class, Camp Hope, Arabi, LA, March 2014.

New Orleans class, Camp Hope, Arabi, LA, March 2014.

And I can’t wait.

*The “they” was really Professor Lisa MacFarlane, then Head of the Honors Program, now Vice President for Academic Affairs/Provost at UNH. I am forever indebted to her trust, foresight, and ability to say “yes” so quickly. The result has been a singular and sometimes life-changing course at UNH. It never gets old for me and, I hope, the same goes for the students.

Rainy Days and Tuesdays Wednesday, Mar 12 2014 

For the first time in years, we had a full bore, no doubt about it rainy day. Needless to say, our group did not go back to siding Steve’s house in Backatown. Instead, we went to John’s house on Deleray Street, literally across from Jackson Barracks. The other groups were already working indoors, therefore work would not be affected — or so we thought.

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John’s house

John has been renovating this house for about a year. He has done a loving and meticulous job at bringing out its beauty and promise. However, working alone, he literally hit the wall when it came to, we’ll, the walls. Between installing awkward sheets of board, taping, mudding, sanding, etc. it is extremely time consuming and not a one person job. And that is where lowernine.org comes in.

We were able to bring a group in of largely inexperienced students to do work that takes a while but is easy to learn. While the guys installed Sheetrock, the rest of the group worked throughout the house doing multiple layers of prep work. It didn’t take long to see substantial progress made. Both John and Bob, our crew chief, seemed pleased. The other grounds continued to work at tiling and installing Sheetrock in other parts of the Lower Ninth.

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Chalmette National Battlefield

And while we worked in poured. Clearly, this would not be a levee lunch day, so I proposed we meet at the Chalmette National Battlefield. Even in the rain, we could go through exhibits and drive around the site of the Battle of New Orleans. Inauspiciously my car was parked on the side of the street in what had become a five inch deep puddle. As a result, I had to remove my shoes in order to get into the car. The battlefield, which is marshy on the best of days, was not much better. We ate lunch; some walked around in the rain and mud; but evyone got a lay of the land, at least.

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Ronald Lewis with students

Everyone returned to their respective tasks and had productive and rewarding afternoons. About four we broke for the day to make our annual pilgrimage to Ronald Lewis’ House of Dance and Feathers. And just as in our visit to Kajun’s pub, it was useful that we had just finished reading Nine Lives. So, they got to meet Ronald AND gain a better understanding of the lace where they are working and staying.

Everyone went back and cleaned up. We ate our first dinner at Camp Hope which was not bad. After dinner everyone descended on a small Baskin Robbins in Chalmette where they overwhelmed the poor young woman running the place alone. They were patient, and from what I understand, tipped generously. Some went back to Camp Hope to chill while the rest of went into the City.

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Aura Nealand and the Royal Roses

I walked about for a while before settling in for a couple of sets at the Spotted Cat. It has become so crowded I don’t get there as often as I used to, but one of my favorite New Orleans musicians, Aurora Nealand, was performing. It was crowded, but not wall-to-wall people. Her band was tight and she was her bright and exuberant self on the clarinet and soprano sax. A wonderful close to a day that some might call a washout, but to us, it was anything but.

Five Ways People in New Orleans are Different from Us — 2014 Update. Tuesday, Feb 25 2014 

I posted the following nearly three years ago. It was an attempt to inform my students of the different attitudes and sensibilities that awaited them in New Orleans. It has been instructive for my students, but it apparently struck a nerve. It is far and away the most viewed posting I have ever made. Happily, most of the comments, especially from those in Southern Louisiana have been extremely positive. And then there are those who will never see anything positive happening in Orleans Parish. I am reposting with a few minor changes and some new photographs, but it remains largely the same.

A note to my students:

Most of you have never been to New Orleans. I grew up in the South, but only geography makes New Orleans part of the South. The people are different and that is wholly a good thing. Most of you are New Englanders. The differences between the two are about as far apart as the 1600 mile van trip you are about to undertake.

I am still learning, but I’m willing to share some of the insights that I have gained over the years. I may not be entirely fluent, but let me try my best to interpret.

Jennifer Jones, March 2013.

Jennifer Jones, March 2013.

People in New Orleans are naturally polite. It’s not artifice; it’s who they are. They smile. They hold doors for you. They call you “baby,” or “shug,” or “darling” because that’s the way they were taught. There’s nothing in it for them, but consider it a good thing for you. Picture a situation in Boston’s North End. You park your car a bit too close to the car behind you. When you come back, the other driver says: “Hey asshole, why’d you block me in?” And there would be gestures. In New Orleans, that exchange might translate to something like this: “Hey bro’, would you mind pulling forward a little so I can get out?”

People in New Orleans are seldom in a hurry. That does mean that they don’t speed on I-10, because they do. But at the same time, they will slow down to let someone merge. At a traffic signal, they might linger a moment – while the New Englander behind them is laying on the horn. The checker at the Rite Aid may be a lot more interested in telling a co-worker about her date, than in ringing out your order. And the more impatient you get, the slower she’ll get. In New Orleans, Friday lunches can take all afternoon. Don’t expect the smaller aspects of life to move any faster.

A conversation on Hickory Street, March 2011.

A conversation on Hickory Street, March 2011.

People in New Orleans will talk to anyone at anytime about anything. In New Orleans, speech is not a mode of communication; it is an art. New Englanders are famous for their economy of words. New England produced President Calvin “Silent Cal” Coolidge. Enough said. New Orleans produced Danny Barker, jazz musician and story teller. He returned home to help carry on the jazz traditions, as much through his words and stories, as his banjo and guitar. In New Orleans, when people ask you “where y’at?” i.e. “how are you?” they really want to know. It is not a pleasantry, it is a conversation starter. And you have to do your part.

People in New Orleans never apologize for having a good time. Remember the Friday lunch. Life in New Orleans can be like that. It’s unmistakable and I think it stems from New Orleans’ precarious existence on the edge. From the beginning, whether it was from spring flood, summer pestilence, fall hurricane, or the threat of attack from another world power, life was fragile. “Hey 8,000 people died of yellow fever this summer, have another drink!” Let’s parade, let’s dance — let’s live for the moment.  This sensibility hasn’t always served New Orleans well, especially in the eyes of the puritanical nation in which it resides. In March 2010, I was at a second line parade on a brutally raw and windy Sunday afternoon in a struggling part of the city. As we waited for the procession to come to us, I asked the woman next to me why she out on such an unpleasant afternoon. She opened her eyes and arms wide for expression and said: “this is what we do!

Mazant Street, March 2009.

Mazant Street, March 2009.

People in New Orleans still appreciate the work of volunteers. When I first came down in 2006, there were few residents to talk to. It was like a war zone and it was clear that any effort was an improvement. Over the years, I’ve been waiting for the welcome to wear off, but at least through August 2013, it has not. In New England, be prepared to be asked: “why are you going down there? What do you mean they haven’t fixed it yet?” On the other hand, people in New Orleans know that 80% of the city was covered in water. The city has lost nearly 30% of its population since 2000, and that is largely from the lack of affordable, livable housing. Be prepared, because New Orleans people will still stop to thank you for what you are doing.

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