Monday, August 21, 2017

Counting My Blessings: the 2016 Louisiana Flooding

At first coughing, the engine soon came to life and spun the propeller behind the boat. A murky brown mix of muddy salt water churns behind the little fishing craft as it pulls out of the dock. Plying onto the bayou, the rising red sun above peeks through an opening in the dark clouds. Its fiery brilliance is reflected on the surface of the water. The boat’s four occupants take pause to admire the beauty of the sight. Little do they know of the torrential rain falls that would begin later that late summer day in August of 2016. The likes of which Louisianans had never seen; a rainfall greater than that experienced during Hurricane Katrina. Yet onto a snake and alligator infested marsh these four adventurers went. Second by second, they sped farther away from civilization and hopes of rescue- if the situation were to arise…
During that second week of August, from the 6th to the 13th, I found myself in the musty streets of New Orleans with about a dozen other colleagues. Together, we formed a service project group. Our mission for that week was to assist a local charter school in setting up their classrooms for the school year. The school, Paul Habans Academy, was newly constructed at the time. Its creation was the result of federal aid that poured into the city following Hurricane Katrina. It took some eleven long years for the school to be built. Yet its doors were to finally be opened and our group was to play a small role in that happening.
Upon our arrival to the city, we were met by the warm rays of the sun and clear blue skies as we exited the airport. During the week, however, weather conditions began to deteriorate. A small group of us volunteers decided that some little bad weather was not going to stop us from enjoying the beauty that Louisiana has to offer. What better way to experience the state then to go fishing on the bayou? We chose to embark on our little expedition on a morning which the local forecast promised to be cloudy with little chance of rainfall. The afternoon was an entirely different story. 
So we set out on our fishing trip in the early hours of August 11. That rainfall that was predicted to occur later that day, however, was unlike anything the area had seen in its recent history. We were on the open water as a mesoscale convection system was forming above us. Thankfully we had caught plenty of fish quickly so that we returned to our dock before midday. Rain started to pour from the skies over New Orleans later that afternoon. It was nothing compared to what the following day had in store for us.
I awoke to a pattering of raindrops on my hotel window the next morning on August 12. Slipping into my street clothes, I ventured down to the lobby looking for breakfast. The indoor dining area was right next door to the hotel’s inner courtyard which contained a small pool. The sight astonished me. Taking a swim just the day before, floating on my back with lush exotic flowers flowing off hotel room balconies above me, the surface of the pool was now violently shaking from the impact of thick rain drops. The rain did not falter from escaping endlessly from the dark sky above. It honestly looked as if no pockets of air existed between the drops. It was that dense.
Stepping outside of the hotel into the torrential rainfall, I took in the dark beauty of the sight. I was even compelled to traverse through a puddle of rain water, at least an inch deep and growing ever bigger, to reach an epic looking statue of a colonial French explorer that sits in the center of Bienville Street. I caught a few people, standing under restaurant canopies and door frames, looking at me strangely as I stood out in the rain snapping a photo of the statue. The contrast of the figure in the foreground with the dark sky in the background just seemed like something worth taking a photo of.
The group I was with spent that night at a restaurant, enjoying the company of one another. We feasted on the bayou fish that were caught the morning before. We were enjoying ourselves in New Orleans as locals upstate from preparing for the worst. The next day, over ten rivers in the state began to experience major flooding. They were swelling from a rainfall that was estimated by some to have been three times as greater than that from Hurricane Katrina. Over 140,000 homes in the region were damaged. New Orleans escaped the worst of the flooding. And on that same day as people were climbing onto Coast Guard rescue boats from the roof tops of their flooded homes, I travelled back to mine nestled away in the suburbia of Chicago. This assignment made me realize how lucky I was that week. Being at the wrong place at the wrong time could have easily ended my life.
Best regards,

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Volunteering in High School

In August of 2012, I had the pleasure of volunteering at the Arthur Ashe Charter School in New Orleans with PIES. It was my first time volunteering with the organization and my first time in New Orleans. Essentially, it was one of the best experiences of life. I recommend that anyone who has the chance to volunteer should take the opportunity, no matter the age. At sixteen years old, I was the youngest person on trip, but that did not prevent me from having a great time. I still remember some of the best parts of the trip, even four years later. The work PIES and I did for Arthur Ashe Public Charter will stick with me for the rest of my life.  

I gained many valuable experiences and learned many lessons while on the trip. As a young high school student, I rarely traveled nor had I been exposed to other communities not like mine. I think one of the most important lessons I learned while volunteering was to take to the time to learn about and understand the community you are serving. I learned that New Orleans is much more than the French Quarter and Mardi Gras. We took the bus and walked to our service site every morning. I saw up close what the real New Orleans is like. The vulnerability of the neighborhoods that I witnessed allowed me to see my privilege. It was gratifying to help out the teachers set up for that upcoming school year, but it was also humbling to have learned so much about myself and the Arthur Ashe community. This trip has been the source of my motivation to continue serving. As a current college senior, I have gone on to serve communities locally and internationally. I always take my experiences with PIES and Arthur Ashe Charter School with me wherever I go. 

Another amazing experience I gained while volunteering with PIES was meeting all the great people that I worked with. The other volunteers was such a diverse group in age and interests. It was a pleasure getting to know them all over the course of a week. I do wish that I had made more of an effort to keep in contact with the people I volunteered with. I recommend that any young person who is volunteering with PIES remember that importance of lasting relationships. I’ve learned that volunteering is not only about serving the community but learning how to work with others and taking yourself out of your comfort zone. Establishing great relationships and socializing will allow you to do just that.

I would love to go back to New Orleans with PIES. Knowing all that I know now about service, volunteering will mean so much more to me. I encourage anyone, no matter how young, to volunteer with PIES. It will be unforgettable and you will learn so much. I would suggest to make the most out of every experience and really embrace them. Whatever you experience in New Orleans and with PIES is truly invaluable.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Connecting with Educators!

After my first year teaching, I found out about a group of educators who were traveling to New Orleans to volunteer with schools.  Since beginning teaching, I had not done much volunteering.  I missed giving back and I thought this would be a perfect way to give back using my new skills I learned in the classroom.  Most of all I was excited to be connecting with educators.  

Since my first trip in 2008, I have been on 5 trips leading 4.  Each trip is distinct with unique personalities.  Each year I learn about myself as an individual and as an educator.  Most of how I learn about myself is through my experience with others on the trip and the educators that we serve.  

Each classroom I enter as a volunteer, helps me connect with educators.  While volunteering, I picked up new ideas for my classroom.  Sometimes I get to share my experiences with other educators.  Sometimes the connection is as simple as looking at a bulletin board and gaining an idea.  Other times, I learn about new ways to manage student behavior and build a better classroom community.  Whether small or large, each connection to an educator has impacted me as an educator.

Since my first trip, the NOLA Schools Project has become an organization of its own, Partnerships in Educator & Service.  As its own organization, the trips have expanded to new locations and new projects.  I was excited about volunteering in Brooklyn, New York.  I made new friends and as always made a difference.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Week with Paul Habans and Kareem Kennedy

The week that I spent in NOLA this year reinforced my commitment to this annual trip. 

Last year, just over a week before taking this trip, I met a young man called Kareem Kennedy at the Free Minds, Free People conference in Chicago. Kareem was representing a group of young leaders of New Orleans.

We exchanged phone numbers, and he spent our first Sunday in NOLA taking my friend and I around town.  He was 23 years old, a student at Southern University of New Orleans, and had fairly recently published a book, Aunt Alice vs. Bob Marley: My Education in New Orleans. We stopped for a rest near the park and he showed us his book and his scars from the time he was shot.

Listening to him talk about his youth was at once horrifying and inspiring - how had this young man come this far with so many roadblocks? He is intelligent, articulate and generous.  The reason we saw him on Sunday and not on Saturday was because he had been busy Saturday, volunteering at the sidewalk library. Here is a young man who knows the value of education and literature, and of being a role model for youth in the kind of urban American setting where many would and do give up hope. 

Knowing him and his story gave special meaning to the work PIEs does in New Orleans, promoting opportunities for education and learning in post-Katrina NOLA by supporting schools to reopen each year.  Having had the opportunity to meet Brenda, Adrienne’s mom, on the trip last year, I felt inspired to invite my own mom and share the experience with her this year.  My mom always nurtured my love of books as a child and prioritized education for my brother and me. I couldn't imagine a better way for us to enjoy time together and give back.

This year, we spent the week setting up the library, scanning, organizing, grade-leveling and shelving thousands and thousands of books. We joked and reminisced ("Look I found a book about Tyler; it's called P.U!"). In the back of my mind as we worked, I wondered about the capacity of the school and how much value our work added. What kind of opportunities to read books at home had the children had during the past year? I lived in the library as a child. I lived for the book fairs; I would circle all the books I wanted as soon as the advertisement came out.

Last summer when we came, there were other groups of volunteers in addition to PIEs; youth on church missions and the like. There was a lot of work to do freshening up the school and, at first, we worked alongside these other groups painting, cleaning and organizing. After painting the cafeteria and kitchen, we started work in the library in the second half of the week, grade leveling mountains of books.  We had about 5 desktop computers to work from and we worked from two classrooms stacked with tables, chairs and thousands of books.

This year, things were different.  When we arrived, we were the only group there, and the school entrusted us with nearly 10 laptops and 18 iPhones to do our work.

The school looked incredible compared to the first day we walked in last year, when the halls were piled with desks and chairs, the walls were bare and the floors dull and dusty. It was hard to believe children would be gracing those halls later that same week!

This year, we walked in to gleaming floors and hallways bright with inspiring quotations hanging from the ceiling.  Some classrooms were labelled with the names of universities (Berkley; Princeton) and little gold and maroon crowns proclaimed the room numbers next to classroom doors.  There were families in and out of the school, buying uniforms and registering their children.   

Best of all, there was a designated library, full of shelves overflowing with books of all kinds and levels. Classrooms also had their own collections of books, which we also carefully scanned and re-shelved for the teachers. 

Our volunteer team had people of diverse abilities and there were jobs for everyone, from putting tennis balls on the bottom of chairs and desks, to organizing reference libraries, to "eyeballing" books to decide with what grade level they should be labeled. I had the opportunity to work with old and new members of the PIEs family, including two young women studying human services at National Louis. It’s exciting to see the caliber of young people we have around us.

I also got to see Kareem three times this visit, introduce him to the team and buy copies of his book. It was a time for celebration - he graduated from SUNO this year and got his first job out of college as a client advocate for the Orleans Public Defenders. He joined the PIEs group one night for dinner and the Jazz Orchestra at Snug Harbor.  

Kareem is one of many reasons I will keep coming back to NOLA with PIEs.  He is a living example of the promise in youth. I know it is always worth it to support education and opportunities for youth to be engaged. Not only will they succeed, they help the rest of us succeed.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Harriet Tubman Elementary School

Wow!!  What an experience!!  This was my first service trip ever and also, my first trip to New Orleans.  This trip started out a little rocky for me.  At the last minute, my friend that was supposed to be joining us was unable to attend.  I looked at the weather for the week and saw that it was supposed to rain the entire time I was there!  My spirits were a little low when the trip began and I was very nervous about going and not really knowing anyone.  The first person I met face to face was, the one and only, Eunice!  She immediately relaxed me a little.  She had a smile on her face and was so genuinely excited for what was in store for us.  It was hard for her spirit to not rub off on me!

Lindsay and Amanda

 The first few days I continued to be nervous about not really knowing anyone (I know Erica, but it had been years since we'd seen each other).  That feeling very quickly faded!!  What made it easier for me open up a little and get along with people was the fact that I couldn't help but be smacked in the face with the reality that we were all there for the same purpose.  To help the people of New Orleans.  To help the schools that the veterans of these trips have become so passionate about.  That is what I will remember most about this trip and what, ultimately, helped me to feel so connected to everyone.  The passion for the work that we were doing.  As I listened to people that have been on more than one trip talk about their experiences and what things were like last year, I was moved.  You can hear in their voices, the things that they speak about and the WAY they say them that these trips are more than just trips to them.  It is a chance to connect with people that have absolutely nothing to do with your daily life, a chance to improve a city that was once in shambles, and an opportunity to really give some meaning to your life and your choices. 

With our stations set up, we were getting a lot accomplished!
As the week progressed I took notice of the work ethic of this group.  It was, in a word, insane!  What most people would take as a vacation, time away from their regular job, their kids or crazy spouses, the members of our team took as an opportunity to make a difference.  People were always moving, always asking what else needed to be done after finishing a task, staying late and coming in early.  We wanted to get things done!  We wanted to leave knowing that Harriet Tubman School would have a great library that the teachers and children could take advantage of.
 It was kind of strange how quickly everyone settled into the routine of eating a continental breakfast, following Michael's directions to the school, putting on music and getting to work, having a quick lunch before returning to work and taking the bus back to the hotel.  By the end of the week I'd almost forgotten about my normal life. I was sad that I wouldn't be returning to the school, sad that I would have to part from the new friends I had made and sad that I was leaving a city that I was beginning to fall in love with.  This trip will most definately not be my last.  I truly admire the team that I worked with and each one of them for different reasons.  I will tell stories about this trip for years to come with the hopes of inspiring people to make a difference, do more and find something they are passionate about.  Until next year..... 

 Our first day, this is what we walked into!!!  Thousands of books just piled up in the library and there was another huge pile in a back room!!
 At the end of the second day, this is what we had accomplished!! It may not look like much, but all the books in these boxes have been given a reading level, stickered and organized!!
Team members working hard!!


By the end of our last full day at the school we had organized, labeled and boxed or shelved thousands of books!!

The Partnerships In Education Week 2 Team        

Thursday, August 16, 2012

My week in NOLA

What an interesting time I had during my week in New Orleans, Louisiana. We worked part of the time while we explored part of the time. I tried my first gumbo and shrimp creole at a restaurant in the French Quarter and liked both of them! The school we worked at is the Harriet Tubman Charter School in the Algiers bank of the Mississippi River. We worked in the library, helping organize the books in the shelves. Sometimes it rained (hard!) during our week in NOLA. One of the most interesting places we visited in New Orleans is the Lower 9th Ward, which resembled a ghost town. I even took Eunice and Kate to the Audubon Zoo. One evening, my dad came to New Orleans for a meeting and I had dinner with him. It is interesting how the bus system also goes everywhere like Chicago, but buses come less frequently. I might return to the Big Easy someday soon...

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Trip #3... and More to Come

Every year around this time, I am worried about where I will be teaching and what my end of year will be like.  August is always full of uncertainty, but one thing is always certain.  I will be back with my NOLA Family at some point in August, and I look forward to this trip every year.

This year was a bit different for me, because I was on the administrative/planning side.  There were a few hiccups, but everything seemed to go as close to plan as possible.  Everyone went to New Orleans with a vision and purpose, and we all returned with sad hearts that the week had to end so soon.  Every minute we spend in one of our New Orleans schools humbles us and makes us wish we could do more.

For trip 2, Harriet Tubman Elementary called us back this year, and we were a bit nervous about being put back on the task of organizing the library.  I personally envisioned two rooms filled with books that were just kept there and never moved since last summer.  This was thankfully not the case, yet there was lots of work to be done.  Once we were able to see the actual teacher resource library, we knew what needed to be accomplished   There were plenty of books on the shelves and thousands that still needed to be leveled, labeled, and shelved.  We delegated tasks and were able to provide a functioning teacher resource library for Harriet Tubman and felt a great sense of accomplishment.

We made friends, had laughs, ate beignets, and formed an attachment to the work we do in New Orleans.  I am certainly look forward to the next trip which can't come soon enough, but has lots of work and planning to get us there.

Let the good times roll!!!!!