January 3, 2010
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My mom kept pestering me that I needed something good for my college applications. So freshman year I looked at getting a job, being a CIT at a summer camp, travel programs, language emersion, and so on. Instead, I chose to do service work.
I never intended to go down to New Orleans. When the service program popped up, I was anything but inspired. Having said that, I enrolled in the program and travelled across the country.

Service work in New Orleans during the summer is not for the fainthearted. Putting aside the humidity and the blistering heat, we worked seven hours a day outside hammering in drywall, clearing overgrown lots with machetes, and lifting soaking moldy furniture from still flooded homes.

But when I think of that summer in New Orleans, I don’t think of the work. I don’t think of the heat, and I most certainly don’t think of the construction. I remember people and experiences that influenced the way I see myself, who taught me a greater sense of responsibility.
There is an image that has etched itself into my mind whenever I think about working in New Orleans. It was storming, and we were in a part of the Lower Ninth Ward that was still very swampy. There was a house that needed to be prepped for demolition, because the owner did not have the materials to remove his now moldy furniture. We arrived at the home and discovered it had literally not been touched since Katrina. Volunteers and I donned facemasks and went in, removing soaked furniture from the decaying dining room.

That was when we came a across the owner’s photo album. It was soaking wet, so we assumed that the album had rotted along with the surrounding catastrophe. But even still, I decided to flip through it to see if any had been saved. I saw that there was only one photo that had survived. I assumed he was graduating from high school, wearing a green robe waving his graduation cap in the air, grinning ear from to ear. I knew that this picture was forever lost to the owner, along with the home. I passed the photo on to a site staff member for safekeeping.

We cleared the entire house before lunchtime: photos, furniture, books, and all. We threw everything out, because everything was no longer usable. Someone told me that the owner might not retrieve it because sometimes owners like these sought refuge outside of New Orleans.

Afterwards, I read in depth about the situation in New Orleans. There are literally thousands of homeowners still abandoned by the government. Five years later, only 25 percent of the lower ninth has moved back into regular housing. So what was my service experience like? My service experience was not an event, a memory, or an incident. My service experience was a call to action.

I came home that summer inspired. Sophomore year I began the American Disaster Relief Club here at my High School. We have roughly 30 members from all grades, and have raised over $1,000 for disaster relief in New Orleans. This semester we hope to start a student response and preparedness program.
I kept a service journal about the people I met, and the things I had experienced. Looking back, I can see that New Orleans allowed me to recognize that I can really help others. Not just by occasionally giving change to a Santa-clad Salvation Army volunteer, but by going out and helping people get back up on their feet.

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