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    Rhode Montijo writes about his trip with The NOLA Tree

    New Orleans, New Hope

    by Rhode Montijo on Thursday, July 7, 2011 at 11:54pm



    Okay, here it is, the last (for now) of the recent fun events that have happened to me. Earlier this year, I was approached by an former editor, Ana, that used to work at Scholastic, who had seen some of my past missions, like my friend and I doing crayon portraits on the streets, and making little snowmen throughout the city with gifts. I was asked if I would be a chaperone for high school-aged kids who spend their summer vacation rebuilding New Orleans with her non profit group- The Nola Tree. I didn't think much about it and just agreed. The day finally came last week before the 4th of July and the group set out to New Orleans. We were told we would concentrate on the lower 9th Ward, where the levees had broken when Hurricane Katrina hit 6 years ago, and flooded so much. I had passed through New Orleans only once before a year after the devastation, and it was surreal. People back then were still crying going through their homes, there were houses on top of cars and cars on top of houses. When we arrived this time it was nice to see that there had been some improvements, but so many empty lots still remained and many marked homes (below: This was how they marked homes that had been inspected- the top was the date the home was searched, the left initial was for the search squad that inspected and the bottom number was the number of bodies found in the home. The right were potential hazards like gas and water leaks, etc.


    We were put up at Camp Hope, an old middle school that was converted into a volunteer center (above: The first two pics show a mural I did with the students at Camp Hope and us sitting on top of the rebuilt levee in the lower 9th ward). At Camp Hope we were assigned army-style bunks for the boys and the girls separately. We also were fed amazing New Orleans style food for breakfast and dinner and allowed to pack a lunch everyday. We woke up everyday at 6 am and worked 'till 5 pm. We were split into groups. One handled roofing, another painting, another gardening, and our team prepped overgrown lots for community gardens and later we treated a home with mold infestation. All the students had origins from all over the world, Spain, India, and Russia among others. (above) Here are some students that were part of the roofing crew.


    On day one, my team and I were asked to help the gardening crew, where I personally learned about growing certain vegetables and was asked to harvest some that were to be sold at a farmer's market on the weekend, to raise money for more rebuilding. I picked some summer squash and lots of Okra, which I was told was used a lot in Gumbo (see basket pic above with the harvest). One of the other chaperones helped set up the tomatoes so they could reach higher (above pic, top right). I also learned about growing pumpkins, which I was excited about. These teachings were short-lived. We were then asked to remove lots of greens on a nearby land lot to prepare it for planting. It was donated by a previous home owner to grow another garden for the community. Immediately we went to work with machetes, sickles and rakes. We were told it may take two days to do our job and my team and I finished in a day. All our shins were scratched and we learned quickly about New Orleans insect life, but the best was when one of the neighbors across the street sent over ice water bottles and popsicles! In general, it felt like everyone in the neighborhood was very grateful and we learned how a simple wave and a smile could bring so much joy. It definitely made my crew and I work harder. Here are some of my crew (below in haz. mat. suits and respirators for mold treatment on a house) The pic below the suited-up pic shows Patricia and Molly. Molly immediately stood out because of her size and her relentless work ethic. I soon nicknamed her "The Terminator" She was the absolute hardest working person on my team. More on her later.


    Here are some more pics of the community garden. There were nice messages hung around that were very fitting. Below that pic, the first signs of pumpkins to be sold in October.


    It was so hot in New Orleans that many of us were sunburned even with repeat applying of sun screen. Occasionally we would get brief rain showers and they were very much welcomed. Here's the roofing crew enjoying a bit of rain.



    This volunteer on my team also had a good head on his shoulders and was a hard worker-Jack! Even though he had allergic reactions to wasps/bees, Jack was suiting himself up to combat a large group of wasps. I got worried about him and interrupted his attempt and another volunteer and myself removed what the wasps were attracted to. No wasps or volunteers were injured! 


    This is Darren, who I felt should be on the Oprah show or something. Ever since Katrina, where I believe Darren lost some family members, for 6 years, he has been working 7 days a week rebuilding the lower 9th ward. Everybody knew his name at Home Depot and all of the volunteers loved him! This guy was a character, emitting some tough love to the volunteers at times, but relentless with his efforts and always smiling and thankful for today. I know he inspired everyone in the team and he wouldn't hear any of it if you were to tell him. That's why everyone wrote him a huge 'thank you' letter and left it on his door step when we left. He preferred being the anonymous face, sometimes surprising some of the homeowners in doing tasks that had been on the volunteer wait list for some time, and always elusive in getting credit for the work. This guy was something else, words can not describe... One man, making a huge difference to the likes I've never seen. He doesn't like saying 'good-bye" so we missed him on our last day in New Orleans. (Above my addition to his card) (Below) one of the many steps leading to no home. These are all over the 9th ward. 


    Some more volunteers hard at work, here's some of the painting group!


    This is Mack (above), he shared the story of how he had purchased a huge space before Hurricane Katrina to house many of his fixed-up cars, but after Katrina he felt the call to do something more and created a nice community center with the space that was originally for his cars. The center he created had a basketball court, small weight room, meeting hall, a wooden ampitheater, garden and even a small library ( I was most impressed by how this was pieced together, yet was nicely organized by category). He felt the urge to share his story with us and sat us down for a small talk. I felt he had had an epiphany, because nothing, but knowledge, light and love was flowing from within him. He said that before Katrina, he didn't talk to anybody, but afterwards felt the need to gather his community. He shared his story and knowledge with us and all the volunteers noticed that he truly listened when he asked each of us to share what we had learned in our volunteer work. Jack said that he appreciated that Mack made direct eye contact with everyone while they were talking and that he thanked each person individually- it's those little things that make a difference, we felt. This guy was a class act and on a mission to spread good. He instilled a lot in us- to help where we can, and that others will follow by example. Mack said he felt good personally seeing the youth and the helping efforts of our volunteers- he felt the world was in good hands.


    A painting tucked away in Mack's community center.


    (above) Olivia helping with applying a concoction on top of mold that had been removed. We had one size fits all suits! At one point I got a bit in my eyes and oh man it burned! Because of the chemicals we would do this in waves, having half the team outside, while the other worked inside, constantly rotating. We asked Molly "The Terminator" to switch teams and go to gardening when I learned she had asthma, which surprised me with all her hard work I'd already seen her do. She surprised me even more when she asked to come back the next day to de-mold, to see her job through. Amazing character she possessed!


    After work, occasionally there'd be time to draw. I was asked to draw on a shirt with a marker then I got a few more requests after that.


    (above) That's Rocco, who roamed the halls of Camp Hope after work with his sipping cup. (next pic down) Drawing little Justin who was the grandson of a homeowner that Nola Tree helped years ago, Miss Nathalie. She threw us a New Orleans style BBQ on the last day as a small thanks. The last pic is of a mural that I was doing at Camp Hope. When I saw one volunteer watching, I asked if he wanted to help and he couldn't have been more excited. It caused a ripple effect and soon there were many hands helping and we finished quickly!


    Miss Nathalie made us a going away/thank you dinner on our last day that consisted of tons of crawfish, crab, potatoes and corn on the cob. It was a great way to wrap things up. 


    (first pic above) Here's Cecilia playing with little Kayla, grandaughter of Miss Nathalie. The following pic is of all the volunteers at Mack's community center (Joey P., Corrine, Elena, Bridgette, Jack, Olivia, Cecilia, Juan, Marat, Ana, Ignacio, Katie, Suzanna, Molly, Ana, Patricia and Marta- not in that order). The picture before last, the hardest thing- saying good-bye. I did not know what I was getting into when I signed up for volunteering for the first time. I always thought you had to be a skilled carpenter or medic, etc., but I learned that anybody who is in good physical health, and is willing, can help. Each one teaches another and progress gets made. I came to help New Orleans, but the city and the students helped me out. I walk away inspired and hopeful, and like Mack said- we are in good hands with the next generation. These students could've easily stayed in their air conditioned homes all summer, but instead they made a choice and that choice has made a difference to so many. I'm proud to have met them and worked along side them. It was only 8 days, but what we learned on this trip will last a lifetime. ~ Rhode




    Angus King talks about his experience as a chaperone

    New Orleans, 2011

    Angus King


              "Life-changing experience" is a phrase which gets thrown around pretty casually these days, but that's just what our service trip to New Orleans turned out to be. Hard physical work, appreciation of the logistics of getting a complex task (like building a house) accomplished, and relationships born of joint struggle all combined to make our time with NOLA Tree and Lower Nine memorable, powerful--and fun.


              I was the chaperone of a group of five girls (four from Maine--one my daughter--and one from New York) for a week in July, 2011--and when I left home to meet the girls in New Orleans, I had no real idea what to expect. They had already been at it a week and by the time I arrived, they were fully into the routine of serious work, reflection on the experience day-by-day, and handling the challenge of living together (with about 20 other volunteers) in Camp Hope, the volunteer hostel set up just outside of New Orleans' devastated Lower Ninth Ward.  


              The first thing that struck me was that they told me what to do ("clear your plate, Dad, and help us dry these dishes"), and not vice versa. In other words, they had gone from entitled teenagers ("Mom, where's dinner?") to responsible young adults practically overnight. And this was just the start.


              They had seen first-hand the ugly scars left by Katrina--overgrown lots where houses once stood, washed out and almost impassable streets, and boarded up houses still showing the scrawled insignia of rescue workers marking which had held survivors and which had held the bodies of those lost to the storm. None of us had ever seen anything like this and it made the headlines and newscasts of those terrible days--now almost six years ago--much more immediate and meaningful.


              Every day, the kids were brought face to face with some of life's harshest realities--but saw at the same time that good will, hard work and joint effort could make a real difference to real people--that they could make change. There's nothing like the satisfaction of seeing a new floor go down over pitted plywood or fresh paint at least partially erase the memories evidenced by a water-stained wall. I think this experience is particularly important to kids who will probably spend most of their working lives pushing paper (or digital images of paper) and who will rarely experience the pain and joy of physical labor where you can actually see and feel what you have accomplished. It also gave them a new appreciation for those who do this kind of work; one of my best moments was when I overheard the girls expressing newfound admiration for several of their friends' dads who actually build things for a living.


              Sure, it was hot (but mercifully, Camp Hope was air-conditioned) and we got dirty (I spent a good deal of time roto-tilling and weed wacking a community garden) and were really tired at the end of the day, but it was honest work in a worthwhile cause and I don't think any of the girls (or me, for that matter) will ever be the same.


              A word about the organization and logistics of our trip. We went under the auspices of a wonderful volunteer organization based in New York called NOLA Tree (www.thenolatree.org) which handled the housing and eating arrangements, chaperoning, the legal stuff and helped coordinate travel. Ana Galan, the director of Nola Tree, is a wonder--well organized, thorough, great with teenagers, inspirational, and totally dedicated. The kids were safe and well looked-after; whatever doubts I had were erased once I saw the set-up for myself. Someone asked if I would recommend a similar trip to others; the fact that I sent my daughter, and would do so again, should provide the answer.


              The work part of the trip was coordinated by a well-established non-profit called Lower Nine (www.lowernine.org) which operates out of a restored house in the middle of the Lower Ninth ward, the epicenter of the destruction wrought by Katrina. They work with the owners of still unreconstructed houses (of which, unfortunately, there are hundreds) to find funding for materials and then supply the coordination and volunteer labor--like our little group from Maine--to do the work. While I was there, we worked on everything from tearing down walls and replacing floors and roofs to the community garden, painting, and hands-on general carpentry.


              Great organizations; great work. See you there!      



    The NOLA Tree Visits Harlem Hospital

    So this past Monday, volunteers from The NOLATree visited the kids at Harlem Hospital. What a magical afternoon!

    For about an hour, our volunteers sang and played music for the kids, who sang and danced along. Even the parents and hospital staff joined in the fun.

    Indy jammed on the guitar and harp, while Max and Ruben rocked out on the drums (note the book on the shelf behind Ruben!).

    Of course, the kids helped play the instruments too.

    It was an afternoon of Bob Marley, John Denver, the Salvation Band and American folk music.

    Beginning later this summer, volunteers from The NOLATree will start visiting Harlem Hospital on a regular basis just like this. So cool!


    Email to Parents from Day #7 of The NOLA Tree's Spring Program

    Hey All...

    What an extraordinary last full day here in the Crescent City.

    Like each morning, we were up and out early, reaching our job site by 7:45 A.M. (yes, we're talking about your kids).  We were back at St. Margaret's Nursing Home, and everyone worked extra hard.  Our site manager, Tommy, was so supportive and instructive.  We boarded up windows, demo-ed ceilings and walls, hauled out trash, and continued to prep the site for future renovations.

    We worked straight through lunch so that we could enjoy the remainder of the day in the French Quarter, which we still hadn't yet seen.  It goes without saying our French Quarter experience far exceeded expectations.  To start, we found on the street parking!  Then we walked down the streets, checking out the sights and sounds.  We stopped at Cafe du Monde for beignets, checked out the levee system in the tourist area (not all levees are created equal, that's for sure), and then stopped for souvenirs.  We ran into Grandpa Elliot, a world famous street musician, on the corner of Royal and Toulousse, and he sang "Stand by Me" for the group. 

    But that was just the start...

    We had a great dinner at Felipe's Taqueria before heading over to Preservation Hall.  Thanks to Karen Strauss and Peter Fleischer, Leroy Jones, the trumpet player and leader of the Masters' Band at the Hall, met with our group prior to the concert.  He was so kind and gracious.  We then sat first row on the floor for the show.  What an incredible experience.  Our feet still won't stop moving.  That was a good thing for our walk down Bourbon Street to close out our experience.

    Now we're back at Camp Hope.  We're all voting for The Pepsi Refresh Grant (www.refresheverything.com/thenolatree), and so should you.  Then we're going to be chilling, playing Kung Fu, and getting ready for tomorrow's trip home.


    Peace, Phil and Ana


    Email to Parents from Day #5 of The NOLA Tree's Spring Program

    Hey All...So in yesterday's email, we mentioned how we were about to head out for a group walk.  Well, it never happened.  While we were waiting for everyone to gather, a game of touch football game broke out, and we played until it was pitch dark instead.

    Today, it was back to work at St. Margaret's Nursing Home in the Lower Ninth.  It's always different returning to a work site because the expectations are so different.  It's amazing how much you learn about what to do and how things work at a site in just a day, and toward that end, The NOLA Tree volunteers seized the initiative.

    Boy did we work hard!  This morning, we were hauling trash, recycling 2x4s, pulling nails from wood, and organizing the dumpster.  Ana was Queen of the Dumpster.  She set up an assembly line with Adrian, Liza, Sofia, and Julian.  Inside, Jorge and Caroline were masters at nail removal.

    We broke for lunch at noon, but then it was back to work.  After a discussion about site safety from our amazing Project Manager, Tommy, we used power tools!  Everyone who had permission to use them was able to use the nail gun and circular saw.  This was needed because we needed to board up windows.  Najzali and Wesley rocked, and by the end of the afternoon, Alejandro and Max were giving tutorials to everyone.

    Right now, we're back at Camp Hope a little on the early side.  We're going to have dinner and then it's off to get some Sno-Balls, another New Orleans tradition.  Then we'll be back here for what's sure to be another inspiring  de-brief.

    Tomorrow, we're at a new job site.  Every day, something new.  Every day, something amazing.

    Peace, Phil and Ana