Rebuilding Hope This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

March 10, 2009
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Insignificant. Passing empty lots of six-foot-high weeds, that word best described how I felt. From inside a Suburban with the air conditioner blowing through my hair and a bottle of cold water in my hand, I surveyed the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans.

Six slabs of concrete sat in a line where six houses used to be. Pieces of a rusty fence lay on the side of the gravel road. Everything was quiet and still. I tried to imagine this neighborhood before Hurricane Katrina. Three times as many houses would be standing, adults would be watching from porches as their children jumped rope, sending “Cinderella, dressed in yella …” echoing down the clean, paved roads as the aroma of fresh shrimp and sausage gumbo wafted through the humid air.

It was only 4 p.m., but I had already been up for eight hours working on Pastor Washington's house. Though the interior was destroyed, the foundation and walls were intact. The sad part was that none of those hours had been spent working directly on the house.

My church volunteer group had been removing debris around the house, and believe it or not, ten people working all day was not sufficient to clear the wreckage. The floodwaters and strong winds had deposited broken Christmas ornaments, lumber, metal, and myriad other objects in Pastor Washington's yard, leaving him with more stuff than he could ever want, but at the same time taking away all he had.

Though the small area I had cleaned was noticeable to me, when I stepped back, I realized that I had only managed to assemble the edges of the puzzle, leaving the middle empty. Only a few minutes ago I had felt important and benevolent, but as I imagined giving myself a pat on the back, it was as if I felt a firm slap on my hand.

That evening, I couldn't help wondering what Pastor Washington was having for supper. I tried to eat as much of my dinner as I could, but ­because the portion was so generous, about half of the shrimp and pasta ­remained. I piled the leftovers into a styrofoam container, telling myself that I would eat it sometime between now and the drive home tomorrow morning, but I knew that was unlikely. I would go to sleep with a full stomach and wake up to a hot breakfast, though someone just a few miles away was spending the night longing for food and would wake up hungry, ill-equipped to face the day.

As my aching muscles rested against the cool sheets, I began thinking about everything I had done and seen that day. I reached for my camera to help fill in the gaps. I saw shots of my brother and me heaving pieces of wood onto a pile, and some others during a water break.

Then I found a picture I had forgotten about. Before we piled into the leather seats of the Suburban, my brother and I had posed with Pastor Washington. I don't know if it was the intense Louisiana heat or my exhausted and sore body, but I had neglected to notice the pastor's ­genuine, appreciative smile.

No, I hadn't provided shelter for all the homeless flood victims or made sure they went to bed with full stomachs, but I did bring a handful of joy and comfort to an 80-year-old man. I looked at his tired eyes and realized that though what I had done that day didn't seem like much to me, it meant everything to him.

When I awoke the next morning, I was sad that I couldn't stay longer but glad I had done something to help. More volunteers would pick up where we left off; Pastor Washington was just starting his new beginning. His smile was going to get a lot more use.

“So, was this experience what you anticipated?” my mom asked as we loaded our suitcases into the car, the unmerciful sun's bold blaze beating down on us.

“I don't think I could have imagined anything like this,” I said, thinking about the thousands of people who were still homeless and the debris everywhere. It's hard to believe that four years have passed since the ­hurricane.

“I bet it was harder than you thought.”

“Well, Pastor Washington has ­already persevered through the hardest parts. We're just here to show him he hasn't lost everything. He still has hope.”

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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