UNH Wildcats volunteer to rebuild homes and hope
Greg Laudani is a student in the course "New Orleans: Place, Meaning, and Context"
Tears trickled down Errol Joseph's face as he spoke to UNH student volunteers in front of a hollow space, the space where his house once stood.
But even after Hurricane Katrina swept his home off its foundation nearly nine years ago, his tears were not from sadness. These were improbable tears of hope and joy.
Over spring break, students and trip leaders in professor William Ross' course "New Orleans: Place, Meaning, and Context" volunteered with lowernine.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to rebuilding and giving hope to residents of the Lower Ninth Ward.
The Lower Ninth Ward, where Joseph's home stood for generations, was the area most devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The storm took over 1,800 of the city's lives, with a "lion's share" coming from this neighborhood, according to Ross.
Combined with surviving residents who relocated after the hurricane, only about 25 percent of Lower Ninth Ward residents have returned since the storm.
Lowernine.org teaches Lower Ninth Ward residents and volunteers construction and gardening skills, and also provides emotional and social services geared toward community development. The goal is to bring the people of this proud community back home.
"Working with lowernine.org was especially rewarding," freshman Hannah Lane said. "Their dedication and commitment to the people of the Lower Ninth Ward really inspired our class to work as hard as possible."
Ross' class spent a week tiling, dry walling and siding devastated homes throughout the Lower Ninth Ward. While doing so, Lower Ninth residents like Joseph showed the group endless appreciation and hospitality.
Joseph held a cookout to thank the UNH volunteers on their last workday, which featured freshly caught, fried catfish and hand-cut french fries.
"Everyone was incredibly friendly, welcoming and generally thankful for our work," senior Tess Renker, who served as a leader on the trip, said. "It's hard to describe the unparalleled warmth of our host community."
The cookout was held outside of Joseph's home, which now consists only of a series of two-by-four wooden planks sitting on top of a sparkling tile floor, the only part of his home that survived Hurricane Katrina.
Joseph, while welcoming everyone to visit the deep fryer for all the fried catfish they could handle, spent most of the cookout thanking volunteers with giant hugs for their help in rebuilding the community he loves.
As much as Lower Ninth Ward residents appreciated the work volunteers put forward, the residents, too, left a lasting impact that students will carry forever.
"Everyone was so grateful for everything that we did," sophomore Ellie Huot said. "They all wanted to celebrate us but really we should've been celebrating them."
At the cookout, Joseph shared his story. Flooding from the hurricane ruined his house to the point where he had to gut it. He persevered through various failed attempts to inspect and rebuild through the state.
He used state rebuilding grants to pay for supplies to rebuild the house. However, Joseph could not get permission from the state to rebuild. So, the supplies he bought, such as drywall, rotted away while he waited for permission to begin building. But he never lost faith that one day he would return home.
Years kept coming and going as Joseph waited for the state's approval. At last he got the opportunity to work with lowernine.org in late 2012. Lowernine.org started working on his home for free, saving him thousands of dollars in construction costs.
Despite all the hoops he had to jump through, the life-long Lower Ninth Ward resident was finally on the right path to getting his house back. Joseph's perseverance epitomizes the remarkable sense of resiliency that many New Orleans residents have demonstrated in their journeys toward recovery.
Going down to the Lower Ninth Ward helped volunteers see this resilience first-hand. Volunteers like senior Bryan Boucher admire these residents for their ability to remain strong in the face of tragedy.
"These people have struggled through nearly a decade of endless bureaucratic red tape, discrimination and setbacks, and they keep fighting to restore their community to what it was," Boucher, who was a leader on the service trip, said. "Still, they are not embittered."
Ross has been volunteering in New Orleans every year since spring break in 2006 and has taken his students down to volunteer since the spring of 2008.
Seeing his students meet life-changing people like Joseph is why Ross started the trip, and why he is eager to continue volunteering with students in future spring breaks.
"You get to experience a different culture, and I think it gives students an opportunity to learn not only about New Orleans but about themselves," Ross said.
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