[StBernard] A Camp Called Hope in St. Bernard Parish

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Wed Aug 23 22:45:22 EDT 2006

A Camp Called Hope in St. Bernard Parish
August 23, 2006

Jeff Weigele in New Orleans, making dinner for the residents and volunteers
of Camp Hope.

Editor’s Note: When Maureen McCarren asked her husband, Jeff Weigele, what
he wanted to do to celebrate his 50th birthday, he said, “Let’s go
volunteer in New Orleans.” Here is their story.

If a vacation is suppose to take you away from life as you know it and
transport you to another world
If a vacation is meant to make you
appreciate what you have in your usual every day life
If a vacation is to
be memorable, then, my recent trip to New Orleans was all that and more.

Camp Hope, an elementary school before it was flooded with nine feet of
water during Katrina, has been gutted and is slowly being built up.
Currently it serves as headquarters for three volunteer agencies, working
for the residents of St. Bernard Parish.

Habitat for Humanity is located in what was once the Principal’s office. Its
volunteers go out and gut houses for citizens so they can then be rebuilt.
Seventeen hundred out of an estimated 7100 houses have been taken care of so
far.) Americorps volunteers are young adults who do perform tasks around
Camp Hope and the community. The Made with Love Café project by the
Emergency Communities Group feeds the volunteers, preparing and serving
three healthy meals a day. Volunteers, as well as local residents, dine on
gumbo, sandwiches, bacon and eggs, banana bread, spaghetti and the like.
Sometimes, there are 300 people to feed for a meal.

I spent a good part of my “vacation” back in the kitchen washing dishes in
three industrial sized sinks. When we first arrived, there was no
electricity, no hot water and no potable water. It was June, 100 degrees,
hot and humid. Food was cooked outside on propane burners. It was
refrigerated in trucks running on generators. We had about 10-20 volunteers,
all working together to make the meals.

Occasionally, someone would come in and run some wires. Soon, there was
electricity. Every day, conditions improved. My husband and I did what we
could to help. Working with other volunteers while we made 300 sandwiches,
we learned some volunteers had been there a few months, some a few days.
Most have volunteered, gone back to their home states of Maine, California,
New York, Michigan, Tennessee and Florida, only to return to the area. Why?
They wanted to help.

After our shift was over, my husband and I would drive around and gasp at
what we saw. Ten months after Katrina, St. Bernard’s Parish was still
deserted. There were no residents. Houses were torn up and falling down.
The debris – steel, wood, rusted refrigerators and stoves, kitchen cabinets,
doors, chairs and cars – have all been pulled out to the main road so crews
can fill up trucks and drive it away. We drove down the main street, the one
with no working stop lights. We saw: blue tarps on roofs, palm trees at an
angle, generators running, FEMA trailers parked in large lots, some in front
yards, boarded up windows on houses, gas pumps tilted, spray painted symbols
on every house, miles of desolation.

No stores, no restaurants, no people.

I talked with some of the residents who came to our café to eat. How are
you? How did you survive? Where will you go from here? One woman told me
how she was living in a trailer provided by FEMA. She never owned a house,
always rented an apartment. During the storm, she, her children and
grandchildren evacuated and ended up in the Astrodome. A man in Texas
offered his house to her and her family for some temporary shelter.
Eventually, her father helped her with the down payment of $11,000 on a New
Orleans house that was flooded. Habitat volunteers are helping gut it, and
family and friends will help her rebuild.

The past ten months have been hard. Her husband died three years ago. When
she went back to her flooded apartment, all the photographs had
disintegrated. She says she’ll walk through a Wal-Mart (one that is far from
were we are) and see a bedspread and reminisce, “I used to have that
spread.” But, she’s optimistic. She’s never been a homeowner, she says. She
knows she’s taking a chance and just hopes no disaster like Katrina happens

During the week my husband and I volunteered at Camp Hope, a good deal of
progress was made. Showers were hooked up for the volunteers to use. Piles
of debris were removed from one side of the road, and a couple of
stop-lights were fixed.

Every mile or so, we’d see a sign where there used to be a restaurant. “Yes,
we’re open,” the sign would read. We stopped at one. We ordered from a
limited menu. The owner reached into a cooler to get the food and used a
microwave to heat it. He gave us our meals and bottled water. We found a
place to sit and looked around. This used to be a fancy restaurant with many
tables. Now, it’s just us, a bunch of flies, the owner and his teenage son.
We tell him to keep the change.

On our last day at Camp Hope, four-day-old kittens were brought into the
camp. They had been discovered in a house that was being gutted. Their
mother had been long gone. We took turns feeding them infant formula from a
bottle. They will eventually run around Camp Hope with the two black lab
puppies that mysteriously joined camp two weeks ago.

Authorities expect Camp Hope to be there at least a few years. Volunteers
will file in and out and back in again. Houses will be gutted and rebuilt.
Kittens will become cats. St. Bernard Parish will come back, but it needs
all the help it can get. And yes, they are open.

If you, or someone you know, is interested in a working vacation, one you
will never forget, check out Camphopeonline.com. I might just see you
there. I’ll be in the back washing dishes.

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