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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



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