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    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!      


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