[StBernard] 'Nothing left to rely on but their spirits'

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Mon Mar 19 23:06:33 EDT 2007

'Nothing left to rely on but their spirits'
Ashley Kimmel - Violet, La.

I am currently a resident of Camp Hope in Violet, La., just a few miles from
the city of New Orleans. Violet is located in St. Bernard Parish, where 100%
of the county was declared uninhabitable after the hurricanes came through.

Camp Hope is a haven for volunteers and a few locals who seek a roof over
their heads and food in their stomachs during the intense rebuilding
process. More than that, it is a place to converse and unwind after the
emotionally draining experiences we volunteers and residents have on a daily
basis. It's a blessing to have such a place - even with half-finished walls,
clogged toilets, concrete floors and steel-beamed ceilings and hallways.
This is where I call home for now, and I feel very lucky.

I came to New Orleans not knowing what to expect. Like many, I was glued to
the TV on Aug. 29, 2005, and into the following long weeks and months as the
world awaited the outcome. I remember being so confused about how this could
happen, why very little was being done and how I could be living my life as
if nothing was going on, as if the chaos on TV were some movie or reality
show. I took things for granted and forgot about the unfortunate people in
the Gulf Coast region.

Then I got a phone call. It was a woman from AmeriCorps, a national service
organization funded by the federal government. I had apparently filled out
an application somewhere along the way, in unsuccessful attempts to find a
job. She wanted to know whether I was still interested. I, of course, jumped
at the opportunity and was hired shortly after my interview. About 25 days
later, I was in Denver training to be a corps member. It was there I found
out that my first project would be in St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana,
working with the St. Bernard Project, a non-profit rebuilding organization.

Our journey there took us right through the heart of the destruction. I
could never have prepared myself for what I saw: the houses and businesses
in shambles, the real-life faces of the residents, the temporary housing
situations, the lack of anything familiar. I couldn't have imagined how bad
things really were.

I'm convinced that the people with the least are the people who help the
most. It's the norm to see a man or woman leaving the shambles of their own
homes to help paint their neighbors'. It's the norm to have a stranger carry
your building supplies out of the Home Depot. It's the norm to be greeted
with a smile and a firm handshake by the same person you've seen five times
that day. It's the norm to be fed a home-cooked meal at every house you
visit. This is the spirit of the Gulf region. These are the people who have
nothing left to rely on but their spirits.

I've seen a grown man cry after coming through the doors of the St. Bernard
Project's office because he wasn't able to humble himself enough to ask for
help. I've seen a man who finished working on his home in June 2005 - after
spending 22 years on it - dance around his living room because the walls
were being painted. I've seen a woman afraid to enter her home, even though
the project was finished with it for quite a while, because she wasn't ready
to readjust to a different life again. I've seen real people, like you or
me, with real emotions and real stories, in the midst of pain and chaos,
succeeding and striving to get things back to "normal." This is the spirit
of the region - and it's contagious.

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