Our Story.

    In July 2007, Phil Bildner and Ana Galan chaperoned a group of New York City high school volunteers on a program to the Lower Ninth Ward, the New Orleans community devastated by Hurricane Katrina.  Working with the organization Emergency Communities, the students aided residents and relief workers, helping to provide meals and assisting in the re-building effort.

    For Phil and Ana (as well as the student-volunteers), this was a life-altering experience.

    Several months later, in February 2008, Phil chaperoned a second volunteer program to New Orleans.  Working with the New York 2 New Orleans Coalition (NY2NO), a youth-governed service organization, Phil led another group of thirty-five (35) New York City high school teens -- from various racial, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds -- as they partnered with a number of New Orleans-based schools, groups and programs.  For Phil, the experience was once again transformative.  This time, what affected him most was how well the students were received by the Lower Ninth Ward community and the positive impact it had on them.

    In July 2008, Phil and Ana teamed up for another student-volunteer program to New Orleans.  In addition, Indiana Hoover joined them as a chaperone.  Indiana was a former student of Phil’s (Phil taught language arts and history in the New York City public school system for eleven years; Indiana was in his eight-grade class during the 2000-2001 school term).  Working with lowernine.org, the volunteers helped to lay the foundation for a community garden and provided much-needed assistance on various construction projects.

     Some of the teenagers on this program were “second-timers,” having traveled to New Orleans with Phil and Ana the previous summer.  They’d been inspired to do more, and upon their return to the Lower Ninth Ward, they encountered residents, volunteers and community members elated to see them again.  The young people had come back to help. 

     Building on the success of their previous brigades, Phil and Ana introduced several new components to the New Orleans experience they offered to young volunteers.  In the months leading up to the program, all participants were required to fund raise to help cover some of the costs and provide financial assistance to those volunteers who couldn’t have otherwise afforded to attend.  For Phil and Ana, this was critical.  They didn’t want to exclude any willing participant for economic reasons.  Hence, they provided the volunteers with the necessary tools, and not surprisingly, the teenagers exceeded expectations.  The fundraising campaign challenged the participants on a second level.  As they solicited funds, they were forced to tell their story, explain their motivations and articulate their views.  For all these reasons, the fundraising pre-requisite would become the norm for future programs.

     Once in New Orleans, Phil and Ana took it upon themselves to broaden the scope of the program, transforming the experience into much more than young people lending a hand to a city and its residents.  They focused on educating the volunteers, exposing them to the history, geography, politics, people and culture of the region.  Organized debriefing sessions were conducted each night where volunteers were encouraged to speak, share ideas and express feelings.

     Almost instantly, the program developed a second, powerful layer.  The volunteers were now being presented with a framework and structure in which they could learn about themselves and learn to help themselves.  Simultaneously, they were discovering and exploring the many ways they could assist others and effect change.

   Over the course of the next months, Phil visited New Orleans several more times.  He continued to establish ties to the community, cultivate relationship with various organizations (Lower 9th Ward Village, Operation Nehemiah, House of Dance and Feathers, King’s Plantation, Sankofa Marketplace, Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School), and seek out ways in which he could introduce young people to the city so that they could help in its rebirth.

    The summer of 2009 saw Phil and Ana bring two more groups of teenagers to New Orleans.  Like the previous year, the volunteers worked with lowernine.org, assisting on a number of re-building projects (participants installed siding, hung plasterboard, painted, repaired roofs, put in windows, removed flooring, etc.).  In addition, Phil and Ana expanded the reach of the program even further by introducing the group to residents from many different New Orleans neighborhoods.  Trips were taken to Algiers, Covington and Metairie.

    In the days immediately following these two most recent programs, every participant expressed an interest in returning to New Orleans with Phil and Ana.  Moreover, the parents of the volunteers wanted to know if other programs were planned for this summer, and if in the future, their children could stay for longer periods.
Without a doubt, parental support has been a driving force behind these programs.  Parents go out of their way to express their gratitude to Phil and Ana.  They point to the tangible and positive impact the experience(s) has on their children, who return with a greater appreciation for what they have and with a desire to participate in similar initiatives within their own communities.  Parents are constantly encouraging Phil and Ana to continue to create these life-affirming experiences.

     They will.

     Inspired by the volunteers they have brought to New Orleans over the course of the last three years, Phil Bildner and Ana Galan now seek to do more.  Thus, they have created The NOLA Tree.


What’s in a Name?

     Coming up with a name for our organization was no easy task.  It didn’t come to us in an instant.  Nor was there a eureka-moment in which we collectively proclaimed, “That’s it!”  Still, we believe we have found the perfect name that works on a number of levels and captures the essence of who we are.

     For starters, we wished to be incorporated in the state of New York, and we had to make sure “our” name wasn’t already taken.  Unfortunately, many of our initial ideas were.  In addition, we wanted a name with a corresponding URL; hence, our name plus the suffixes .com, .net, and .org all needed to be available.  Once again, that seriously cut into our potential name pool.

     But we were undeterred.

     We all felt strongly that our name should have a connection to New Orleans.  The Crescent City and our post-Hurricane Katrina efforts there were what brought us together as individuals, and over the course of our numerous trips there, we’d each developed a strong affinity and attachment to the city.
The acronym NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana) provides us with the mechanism and means to establish the desired nexus.  It’s easy to pronounce, simple and elegant, and familiar to everyone with knowledge of New Orleans.  And for those who don’t know of “NOLA,” it creates a teaching moment, and education is a key part of our organization’s vision.

      With the New Orleans portion of our name in place, we set out in search of the other word or words that would fill out are name.  What word or words should come before or after NOLA?  We tried far too many variations and directions to list, but over time, we kept on returning to one word:


     On one level, a tree is a living organism, and the idea of having something alive in our name resonated with all of us.  The tree as a metaphor also carried a great deal of weight.  A tree comes from a seed and then grows; our volunteers are the seeds that will grow, learn and prosper.  A tree has roots; our volunteers will be participating in ground-up initiatives, establishing deep-rooted ties to community development programs.  A tree has branches that reach out and grow in all directions; our volunteer efforts will branch out all over New Orleans and then across the nation and globe.

     Thus, we found our name, The NOLA Tree.