Park Scholars in New Orleans: 2012
New Orleans "Serves" Park Scholars: Alyssa Figueroa, ’12, Reflects on the Park Scholar Senior Service Trip
By Alyssa Figueroa
“My daughter said ‘It looks like a pumpkin house.’ And I said, ‘Well then I like the pumpkin house!’” Ms. Mildred exclaimed with her big, white smile as we slathered bright pumpkin-orange paint on her house.
After five days of sanding, caulking, and first-coat painting, me and all my fellow senior Park Scholars kept taking a few steps back from her house to get a good look at the transformation. A once Katrina-flooded and rain and wind-stricken house was now a gleaming tropical home.
Every year, the senior Park Scholar class heads down to New Orleans in January for a week-long service trip repairing a house that was damaged by Hurricane Katrina. This year, we were housed by Hands On New Orleans, an organization that aims to help rebuild the city, in a large bunkhouse. Each morning, we would wake up, pack lunch, and hit the road to start volunteering with Beacon of Hope, a center that guides volunteers on rebuilding and renewal efforts.
At first, I wasn’t sure if I was going to do more damage to the house with my lack of proficiency concerning physical labor. However, my fellow Park Scholars were so encouraging and helpful, that now if I can’t sand down a wall, I don’t know who could. Not only did I learn the tools of the trade, but also I learned about the necessity of tangible work. Most times, we talk too much about how we can better our society, and then fail to act. New Orleans taught us that when people come together, like us 17 Park Scholars, we could accomplish huge feats.
After our volunteer work, we continued bonding as we embraced the city’s rich flavor — a mix of Cajun, jazz, and love. The city showed us its ongoing history of struggle and resistance. As one trombone sang with all his soul, “Deep in my heart/I do believe/We shall overcome someday” while the whole audience joined in swaying side to side.
Twice during the week, we gathered to discuss our feelings concerning New Orleans as well as talk with experts and residents, who passionately reminded us “Hurricane Katrina was not a natural disaster.” It was a man-made one, as various socio-economic factors played into the inadequate levee system, and continue play a role in the very slow recovery effort.
Some scholars, including myself, drove through the Lower Ninth Ward with a guide from Lowernine.org, a grassroots network in the Ward that works to rebuild houses. We saw the barren lands and the deserted houses as we heard the chilling silence you won’t find anywhere else in New Orleans. Sometimes we would catch a few children running up and down the street, waving and smiling to us, their eyes full of hope.
With various odds and opportunities against them, the people of New Orleans still embody the city’s passion and resistance. New Orleans inspired us to continue this struggle with them, and use the skills we have to tell the world about their story of the continued fight for equality, peace, and rebuilding.