Lending a Helping Hand: The End

March 10, 2010

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Back Home: Wrapping It Up

Over spring break, Ben Cronin, along with football players Craig Roh and Jordan Reilley, went to New Orleans with a group from the University of Michigan to help the rebuild the city from Hurricane Katrina. Ben kept a running diary about his experience while down in Louisiana and then received a letter from Vann Joines, Director of Public Relations and Marketing for Project Homecoming, about the group’s efforts.

Hello Ben,

This is Vann Joines from Project Homecoming in New Orleans.  First and foremost, I wanted to thank you and your group for an outstanding week of service here in New Orleans.  It is expected that during this time of the year we will be hosting numerous college volunteer groups, and that is sometimes a daunting task.  Yet, if we were to have more groups like yours, our jobs would be much easier.  Your group was extremely well-mannered, thoughtful, took direction well and more than anything else, were flexible with us.  We know that not everyone expected to plant trees during your trip, nor did you expect to move from one house to another (to do cleanup work), but your group took all of this in stride, with a smile on your faces.  And for that I want to thank you. 

It was especially exciting as well to have a number of collegiate athletes involved in your service trip. As a college athlete myself, I know how little time you have between school and practice, that any extracurricular activities are difficult to manage. But to see a group of student-athletes spending their spring break serving the survivors of Hurricane Katrina speaks volumes of your character and of the athletic department of the University of Michigan.

Project Homecoming is blessed to have volunteers from colleges all over the country, but we have never experienced a college with an athletic department of Michigan's caliber sending student-athletes to volunteer.  In this era of overly commercialized college athletics, in which sports commentators often questions the validity of the term "student athlete," this act of selflessness by the young men of this group should be exalted. It should be known to all those who get up every morning and watch ESPN's Sportscenter that today's student athletes are not just well-trained apes, rather they are young men and women whose commitment to excellence is pervasive on and off the field. And as such, the University of Michigan's athletic department sets that standard of excellence.  

 I also want to invite you, and everyone else who came down with you, to become friends with us on Facebook. (www.facebook.com/ProjHomecoming). On our page we have photos from the dedication as well as others from Wesley Hall's house. 

If anyone is looking to plan a trip for the summer, fall break, winter break, spring break or any week during the year, please call our Mission Coordinator, Sue Larue, at (504) 942-0444 x242.

About Project Homecoming

Project Homecoming (PH) is a ministry of the Presbytery of South Louisiana, in partnership with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.  PH rebuilds the homes of uninsured, under insured, elderly and disabled survivors of Hurricane Katrina in the Greater New Orleans area.

Since its inception in April of 2007, PH has utilized its experienced construction management and over 7,500 volunteers to rebuild 100 homes at less than one third the cost charged by contractors.  Using its volunteer labor force, PH prides itself on the quality, efficiency and sustainability of its building practices, made possible by a combined 50 years of construction experience among its Construction Managers.

One of the main houses that Ben and his group worked on was Wesley Hall’s house. This is Wesley’s story about rebuilding his house.

Wesley Hall’s story
After the hurricane, Wesley remembers the doubt of what to do. The house was too far gone to be salvaged. It had to be demolished and build up from the beginning. Could he do it? Road Home money set him on track. He knew the right things how to do it too. Looking to his hands, he thought, “Those hands are not meant to do nothing. I cannot stand in the doorway watching other people work. You need to help others to be helped yourself!”

It didn’t work out the way he thought it would do. The contractors he hired were a pain in the neck and ripped him off. They wanted extra money for licenses they didn’t have but needed. They didn’t follow his expectations. They made mistakes and refused to fix them. Much too soon, all his money was gone.

Wesley stopped working. It was more than his family could handle. He decided to focus on his wife and children, their health and well being. He wanted to make it together. He figured they were going back after our house was built. But it’s been almost five years now….

“I almost gave up,” Wesley tells visitors all the time. “But sometimes our faith is tested. I was giving up on mankind, but I was not straddling a fence. I didn’t give up on God, but people weren’t doing the right thing.” Wesley thought of the contractors who messed things up, brand new copper pipes that were stolen from the house and his television that was stolen from the FEMA trailer.

“All I could do was to get on my knees and pray,” he said. And that was what he did.

Through the Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association, Wesley came in contact with Project Homecoming. It restored his faith in people. So many volunteers came in and fixed the problems the contractors created. They helped re-do all the kitchen cabinets that were improperly installed. They helped lay the tile, finish the bamboo floors, hang all the doors, finish all the trim work and installed everything down to the kitchen sink. They helped finish the painting. They did so many things. From foundation to ceiling. From kitchen to bathroom. From plumbing to painting. Everything that needed to be done, they did it!

Project Homecoming will help him to move in, along with his daughter and her two children. His almost-finished house is almost empty with no more than a mattress from the FEMA-trailer, a couple of wooden chairs and a television, but Wesley does not really worry about those things. He has come so far.

Born and raised in a faithful family of ministers, Wesley sticks to his faith as he looks to the future. “I kept praying,” he said. “God does not always answer straight away. He answers in His time. I’ve been patient and now it’s my time. I almost lost my faith in people. But I have come to believe that if I approach people in the right manner, I’ll be okay. And that’s what we all have to do, trust and love.”

Day 6: Touring New Orleans

Today we worked at a different site, helping to put the finishing touches on a house that was close to being finished. The homeowner’s name is Wesley, and his house was completely destroyed in the hurricane. He told us stories about how the water reached up to the very top of his roof. Wesley spent some time telling us his life story, which was very touching. It was great to be able to help finish up the home for him. We painted up a few spots in the house, moved furniture in and cleaned the floors and the windows. Wesley’s home is the 100th home that Project Homecoming has completed. In my final post I will tell you a bit more about his story.

After working with Wesley, our group took a tour around New Orleans because it was our last day of work. One of the construction coordinators, Duncan, showed us a bunch of the different parts of the city that were affected by the hurricane and explained what happened at each spot. Our first stop was at the levees in the lower 9th Ward. Duncan explained that the poor levee system was the only reason the city of New Orleans was flooded. If the system had been up to standard, the destruction would have been minimal. The government should have put more money into the levees, instead of pouring it elsewhere. We stood on the levee that protects the lower 9th Ward while Duncan explained that before the hurricane, this part of town was the most populated, with homes lined up for miles and miles. As we looked over the land, it was shocking to see that there was so much empty space now where homes used to be. Duncan said that the people in the lowest areas had very little time to evacuate. The people who did survive by getting to the Convention Center and Super Dome were stuck for five days without food and water. Check out the photo gallery for some pictures of the levees.

Our next stop was a construction area in the lower 9th Ward where Brad Pitt’s charity organization is working to build homes. Many of the homes they are building are very modern. It was cool to see all of the work people have been doing in the city. Even though the hurricane was five years ago, people are still just starting to get their lives back. The head of project Homecoming said something like 24 percent of people have not been able to get back to their homes.

Last night for dinner, a couple families whose houses we were working on visited for dinner. I wrote on Monday how we worked on Eagle Street in the 17th ward. The really sweet elderly lady that lived in that house brought her family for dinner. She brought her very energetic great grand children to the meal. They were so adorable. I played hide and go seek with this little girl, Kaya, for almost an hour. She really took to me and made a good friend. Working with children is my passion, so I really love kids. 

After dinner and when the families left, I started to think about children just like Kaya who had to evacuate and leave their homes. Some children probably lost their parents or have had nowhere to live for their entire lives. This was really depressing to think about. It was so nice though to hear her great grandmother talk about how God had helped them get through a lot of the pain that they had been through and how happy they were to get their life back now.

This was our last night in New Orleans so went to hang out in the French Quarter and Bourbon Street. We got coffee and listened to some great blues bands play. Our work site leader, Duncan, came along and showed us a good time. Tomorrow we will wake up early and start our trip back. It has been such an amazing week. It has been awesome working with Project Homecoming this week. It is so amazing what they are doing for a lot of people here in New Orleans. Tomorrow will be my last blog of the trip. I will tell you a bit more about Project Homecoming.

Day 5: Power Tool Time

Today was a long day at the work site, but it was the most fun we have had yet. We had some pretty intense assignments. We had to tear up about 20 feet of cement with sledgehammers. We got a lot done, but it was very vigorous. Craig Roh and Jordan Reilly are human jackhammers, props to Mike Barwis and the football strength gang. Greg Hockenbrocht, Austin Katai, Dave Huston and I tore up a lot of the roof; I was a great help being the only one that did not need a ladder to reach a lot of the rafters. Today was a lot of fun because we pretty much used all power tools and sledgehammers. Oh, and Craig mowed the lawn!

Just doing the demolition the past two days is like an intense strength workout in itself. I do not think most spring breaks provide the same kind of conditioning. When we get back to our dorms we are sore and ready to lay down for a while. Our site leader, Duncan, is the man. We have had a lot of fun working with him. Tomorrow he is taking us on a tour of the best sites in New Orleans. I will be taking some great pictures.

Tonight it was Young Life's turn to make dinner and we showed off our culinary expertise. We made a couple different kinds gumbo, bread pudding and Cajun coleslaw. It was a hit. I have to say that University of Michigan students set the bar in mastering all skill sets. Also a matter of fact, I am a ping pong boss. I did not lose all night during our down time.

It was a gorgeous day out; I tanned a little bit. I am having a blast here, and will be sad when we have to drive back on Friday. I am working with and getting to know so many different people. This is my first mission trip and it has amazing so far.

We have group Bible study right now so I have to end this pretty soon. Tomorrow is going to be a great day!

Day 4: Planting Trees and Eating Alligator

Today started like usual -- breakfast at 7 a.m. then off to work at 8 a.m. I went with a smaller group to do demolition work in one of the home sites, while the rest went off to help plant Cyprus trees with a local organization called AmeriCorps. Apparently much of the local plant life was completely destroyed in the hurricane, so this organization is working to replant oak and Cyprus trees in the swamps and forests around the city. Kids from the group who went to plant trees said it was pretty hard work. They were given these tools -- basically metal spikes with handles -- to dig up holes into the ground so they could insert the Cyprus tree saplings. One person estimated that our group planted around 1,000 trees today.

Surprisingly, it was really cold. I was hoping that since we were coming to the south I was going to be able to get a change from the cold Ann Arbor weather, but it was not much better here today, staying about 45 degrees for most of the day. Hey, at least there is no snow!

After work our team decided to make a trip to downtown New Orleans for dinner. We left the campsite around 6 p.m. and headed to the French Quarter, where we had a reservation at a local hotspot called Mulate's. The food was incredible and very exotic. I ordered a rack of Cajun ribs, but a couple of the guys were a little more adventurous. Craig Roh had a plate of grilled alligator, which was pretty tough to chew. A live band was playing at the restaurant, so after our meal a bunch of us danced to Creole music for about an hour. It was a blast, but it wore me out. I have to say, though, I am probably the best dancer in the group.

I was disappointed today because I still have not met any of the homeowners of the sites that we are working at, but tomorrow we will for sure. I am very excited to start tomorrow; everyday the progress is growing tremendously. I have about three blisters on each hand, but I am fine with that. I just want to get as much done for these people as possible.

Our young life leader, Kenny, is starting out Bible study in a few minutes so I have to wrap it up.

Real quick, we drove by one of the houses today that had the marks on them (see last post), and it read that there were seven bodies found in that one house. I was devastated when Hurricane Katrina hit but being here and seeing what it is still like five years after just blows my mind. Seeing stuff like that just breaks my heart. So many of these people just need to catch a break and that is exactly what "Project Home Coming" is here for. I am so glad I can be part of it.

God Bless,

Read more tomorrow!

Day 3: Rebuilding One at at Time

We got an early start this morning, getting up by 7 a.m. After breakfast we watched a quick video about what the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has been doing in the inner city neighborhoods since Hurricane Katrina. Our team was motivated after seeing some of the touching stories and how lives have been changed, and we could not wait to get into the field to work.

One of our group members noticed in the video that there were numbers and big X's spray painted on all of the house doors that were damaged from the hurricane and asked the project coordinator what they meant. After the hurricane hit, relief workers from the National Guard and the local forces searched homes to assess the damage. Because there was such an emphasis on saving those who were still alive, if a dead body was found in a house, the rescuers would mark it with a large X and the number of dead bodies found inside so they could be picked up later. It was tough hearing that, to think of the people who had no idea if their family members were alive or dead, because their bodies had not yet been identified. I cannot even imagine some of the destruction that these people have been through.

I was ready to get going and start at the work site. We will end up working all over the city, but today we were working at a house on Eagle Street in the 17th Ward. The outside of the house looked decent, but the inside was a complete wreck. I started work by putting up the side paneling on part of the house, and then we tore down interior walls and put up doorframes in the house. Check out a photo in the gallery!

We have not been able to meet the homeowner yet, but I am very excited to meet her. She is an elderly lady with more than five grandchildren. The workers that have been at this site for weeks said she has some amazing stories to tell. She shows up every day and talks about how blessed she is to have us here to help. I am getting so much out of this trip so far. I cannot wait to be able to look back at everything at the end of it all and be able to really see how much we have helped her and other families in this neighborhood.

The people who have been working for this assistance group for the last five years tell us that this can really be a life-changing experience.

Day 1 and 2: The Trip Down

During spring break this year, I am traveling to New Orleans with a group of students from Young Life College, a student faith organization at the University of Michigan. Our group is comprised of 17 students, including Michigan football players Craig Roh and Jordan Reilly. While we are here, we will be helping families who were displaced from their homes after Hurricane Katrina. Though it may seem like the hurricane is a thing of the past, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Our first day (Saturday) began at 9 a.m. at the Ann Arbor Enterprise office, where we met our group and picked up the four mini-vans we'd be using for the trip. After cramming the luggage into the back of the vans, we began our 16-hour trip to Louisiana. Thankfully, we did not make the drive in one day, and stopped in Nashville after eight hours on the road. We ate at Jack's Barbeque on Broadway Street, the main drag in the downtown. Eric Clapton was playing a show that night and the city was buzzing -- live country music blaring from every bar, street musicians entertaining the tourists. The food was delicious, probably some of the best barbeque I have ever tasted. The next hour we walked around and took in the sights of the city. In an attempt to get acclimated with the Southern culture, Craig, Jordan and I bought black cowboy hats and have been listening to country music the entire way.

The next morning we woke up around 7 a.m. with hopes of getting on the road at 8 a.m. But after a slight issue with some of the luggage, we didn't get rolling until 9 a.m. After about four hours we stopped for lunch in Tuscaloosa to visit the University of Alabama. We toured the campus, got lunch at a small restaurant called The Crimson Café and ice cream at a local Coldstone before hitting the road again with hopes of getting to New Orleans by 6 p.m. for dinner. We rolled up 45 minutes late, but the food was still warm.

The place we are staying is a village run by the Presbyterian Disaster Relief, an organization that coordinates groups to come down and help in New Orleans. It is about 20 minutes from downtown. There are three other groups here -- about 65 total people -- but only four showers and a couple of toilets.

I am excited to be in New Orleans and get to know the people on my team even better while growing in my faith and as a person. I really feel this is a great opportunity that the University of Michigan is providing, in which I am able to take the gifts and abilities I have been given and use them to help those in need. We have to get up early tomorrow for orientation, where we'll find out what type of work we will be doing the entire week. Check back tomorrow to hear more about our trip.

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