My Christmas Vacation This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

April 11, 2008
During lunch all my friends were talking about their families’ plans for winter break. Some were visiting grandparents in Florida, while others were going to these great-sounding Caribbean resorts. My brother had even been invited by his friend’s family to go to Aruba. I was more than a little jealous since my parents couldn’t take vacation during Christmas week, and I would be stuck at home shoveling snow while everyone else was lying on the beach.

I came home from school that day to find a newsletter from the Jewish Community Center, which contained an ad for an “alternative vacation” community-service trip to New ­Orleans during Christmas week, ­supported by the UJA Federation. The trip was titled Tikkun Olam, which in Hebrew means “repairing the world.” I wondered whether cleaning neighborhoods ­destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag was really the way I wanted to spend Christmas vacation. I sent in an application anyway, went for an interview, and was ­actually very excited when I was ­accepted into the program.

The trip was only part of the commitment to the program. First, there were meetings to get to know the 11 other kids and to give us background on the hurricanes, the rescue efforts, and the devastation that still exists in New Orleans. Then there were fund-raising activities, including writing letters to neighbors, friends, and family, bake sales, and car washes to cover our traveling expenses and to donate to the people of New Orleans.

I had never been so far from home by myself, and I was a little nervous at the airport the day we left for Louisiana. At least, the weather should be warm, I thought. Little did I know, the week ahead would be the most inspiring experience of my life.

We arrived in New Orleans on December 23. First, we had dinner at a pizza place that had been destroyed by the hurricane. The owners told us about how they had been forced to move to Mississippi, what they experienced when they returned to New Orleans, and their ordeal trying to rebuild their lives and the restaurant.

On Christmas Eve, we spent the day whacking weeds, removing garbage, and unloading tiles as part of a beautification project in the Lower Ninth Ward. This area of the city is closest to the mouth of the Mississippi River and therefore was most heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Even today, properties still remain in ruins. Property owners spoke to us about having to live in trailers for more than two years, and what they have gone through to rebuild their homes. From where we worked, we could see the pink tents of the Make It Right Project, a housing effort made famous by Brad Pitt.

On Christmas Day, we worked at a recovery and treatment center for addicts, preparing and serving Christmas dinner to homeless people. The people ­really appreciated our work, and we felt like we had made Christmas a little more special for them. Afterward, we met with members of a local temple. We saw how the walls of the temple had been damaged by ten feet of floodwater. Then we sorted prayer books and ritual objects, and helped clean the grounds of the synagogue.

One of my favorite projects was helping at an animal rescue center. We walked the animals, cleaned their crates, and fed them. Six thousand dogs and cats, separated from their owners, were rescued by that shelter after the hurricane. I remember hearing horrible stories on TV of people who refused to evacuate because they weren’t allowed to bring their pets with them. Hearing these sad stories again from the animal rescue workers made me miss my own dog.

The following day, we went to see St. Bernard Parish, a section of New Orleans completely destroyed by the hurricane. For more than two months this area had no electricity, clean water, or proper sewage. The homes we saw were uninhabitable. We met a man who had been living in a shelter and then a trailer. We spent the day helping him try to find the driveway of his house under all the debris. We had to wear special suits, goggles, and masks. Taking a shower that night felt really good!

Even though we did a lot of work that ­resulted in some sore muscles, we had plenty of time to see New Orleans and enjoy its famous food and culture. We went to Preservation Hall for a jazz concert, visited the French Quarter (which was as awesome as people told me it would be), and had a haunted history tour. We ate authentic Cajun food and seafood gumbo, and we tried the hot chocolate and beignets (fritters) at Café Du Monde. We also spent some time with New Orleans Jews, and students from local B’nai Brith organizations joined many of our community-service activities.

When I returned to New York and told my friends about my trip, I realized how ridiculous I had been to be jealous of their Christmas plans. I looked around at my house, my dog, my family, and everything I owned and felt really spoiled. All the things I saw in New Orleans, all the amazing people I met, and the small ways I was able to contribute to the rebuilding of the city made that week the most memorable vacation I can imagine.

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

Join the Discussion

This article has 11 comments. Post your own now!

Navin said...
Jan. 6, 2016 at 6:13 am
This is a good wedsite i had ever seen......
DreamsAreBroken said...
Jan. 5, 2011 at 2:47 pm
This is beautiful :)  nice writing by the way
S M Wells said...
Nov. 23, 2010 at 8:15 am
I've never been on a christmas vaction. I think that sounded real cool.Do you think that is you best memory of christmas vacation? Or you just realy liked it.
thewriteidea This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Nov. 22, 2010 at 9:16 pm
what an inspiring story! it just goes to show how even people who don't live in new orleans can still be affected by something tragic that happened years ago. i love this!
703mmc said...
Oct. 28, 2010 at 3:11 pm
I live about an hour away from New Orleans, and I remember driving through the city seeing all the wreckage. It was absolutely heart breaking.  I know that I probably never could have done what you spent your Christmas vacation doing. I probably would have stayed home moping around the whole time. I love how you created your own vacation for yourself.  
rmp707 said...
Oct. 28, 2010 at 3:06 pm
Reading this makes me think about events that happened in my life. I understand how you feel. Not going anywhere on your Christmas break is a horrible feeling. I was in this situation before. Now that I have met my father's parents, I go to Dallas for my Christmas break. Visiting the people would be a site to see for me. New Orleans is a wonderful place to visit on your Christmas break.
RLL507 said...
Oct. 28, 2010 at 12:44 pm
I know exactly what you are talking about. I live in Louisiana and have family members that live in the New Orleans area.  I am glad that people had the chance to come and see what this major storm did to the nice, sweet, and unfortunate people. I thought about this everyday-- of the home I have and what those people lost. It amazes me how thousands of people came to help clean up New Orleans and the donations people gave. Do not be jealous of friends for going on nice vacations. This vacat... (more »)
hootowl4 said...
Sept. 25, 2010 at 10:28 am
wow... that's sounds so amazing keep writing this was great
babigerl1194 said...
Jul. 13, 2010 at 1:39 pm
my oh my. youre so lucky to experience that.
cutienikky :) said...
Dec. 26, 2009 at 10:22 pm
hey .. =p
i really love your post ha ? :))
that was quite amazing ..
thank's to these ..
now, i don't need to wrote about my christmas vacation ..
i will copy these one .. xD
thank's much much ^^
love you all ! :P
till the next time guys .. :))
iLOVEyou all .. :P
baby angel 44 replied...
Jan. 2, 2010 at 4:34 am
anak ng pota TO WROTE halatang bobo!!!!!!!
i will copy THESE one ampota!!! i really love your comment ha! go gagagurl!!!!!! la la la la pa pa pa pa pa.... moshi moshi lab lab lab mwhah!!!!
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