The seven blocks that span from Michoud Boulevard down to Alcee Fortier Road along Chef Menteur Highway make up a community that looks as if someone swooped up a village in Northern Vietnam and then planted in New Orleans.
Christina Wadhwani, a 21-year-old senior at GW, first stepped onto these seven blocks in March of 2006. Then again last summer, again last winter and again this summer. She is one of a few GW students who went to New Orleans to help rebuild torn communities post-Katrina, and then kept going back.
Going back to New Orleans to help rebuild multiple times is not uncommon, said Aleis Tusa, communications director for the New Orleans branch of Habitat for Humanity, a community service organization. Tusa said approximately 50 percent of the volunteers this summer were returning volunteers and the majority were college students.
“Most college students come during their spring breaks and see that when they leave the need is still there. You know, one year later not all of the work is going to be done,” Tusa said. “Many returning volunteers tell me that they find coming back fulfilling. They get to see the family living in the home they helped build.”
Wadhwani first went to New Orleans as part of a spring break trip with GW’s Vietnamese Student Association. She helped build houses and stayed at a local church. A few months later she got an internship conducting research on the mental health of female Vietnamese-Americans living in New Orleans post-Katrina. She was assigned to conduct focus groups with Vietnamese-American women in the community.
It took her six months to build the relationships, which she started that summer and continued building via phone conversations while taking classes at GW, she said. The women of those seven blocks grew to know her name, to trust her, and by January 2007 she was ready to start the focus groups.
She asked them about if they were relocated after the storm, how it felt to be evacuated, if they were separated from their families. Their emotions ran and the thoughts came gushing out, she said. The women told her stories of how they were moved to Minnesota, but their sons to Texas; how they had lost their homes; how they never got the money the Federal Emergency Management Administration promised them.
This summer, Wadhwani returned to New Orleans because she wanted to do more with the seven blocks that she had fallen in love with, that have become her second home, she said. She helped a community development organization gather data in order to apply for grants from the Department of Health and Human Services to build a clinic. The nearest hospital is 45 minutes away, which was a big problem after Katrina struck, she said. In her spare time she works with an organization that mentors at risk youth.
She does all this, but when it comes time to return to GW, it’s difficult. It takes one to two weeks for her to adjust to the GW mentality, she said. A lot of her friends do not know what they are passionate about, don’t know much outside of GW, and don’t understand why she keeps going back to New Orleans, she said. But for her it’s simple.
“Going down to New Orleans completely changed my life,” she said.
“I feel like I live two lives. I have a life in New Orleans and a life in D.C. Being a student in D.C. for nine months and then to work in New Orleans with at-risk youth, with the community, it’s been tough.”
Wadhwani said she is counting the days before she graduates and she can move to New Orleans. She said she plans to either get a graduate degree from Tulane University or work full time with the youth center where she volunteered.
For Timur Akman-Duffy, a 19-year-old sophomore at GW who also fell in love with New Orleans, volunteering there was like drinking a Red Bull. A few months into his freshman year, classes that he once thought were exciting seemed bland. Then he went to New Orleans in March as part of Alternative Spring Break, a program run by the Office of Community Service. He liked it so much he decided to take a year off and volunteer with AmeriCorps in New Orleans.
Last spring, he worked on Habitat’s Musician’s Village, the brainchild of jazz musicians Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford and Ellis Marsalis. It is a community in the Upper Ninth Ward where Habitat plans to give most of the 70 single-family homes to musicians. Habitat also plans to have a performance space and have the musicians give free lessons to children in the community.
“It’s basically the community I wish I lived in,” said Akman-Duffy, who plays alto-saxophone. “After Katrina, more than just houses were destroyed. New Orleans has a spirit that also got hit. It is a city of jazz and celebration, and it’s just as important to rebuild that as it is to rebuild all the homes.”
A week of tilling soil and building the siding for a house made time fly by and coming back to school and readjusting was difficult, Akman-Duffy said. He went from building his dream community to sitting in classes he did not enjoy. His energy buzz had worn off.
He started applying to the AmeriCorps programs in April. As an AmeriCorps volunteer he will be in construction, leading programs similar to the one he went on in March.
Duffy said he thinks students take a second trip to volunteer in New Orleans because of the city’s lively spirit and because the volunteers realize they have to “pick up the slack” since government aid has fallen short. He said he is going back, because like Wadhwani, he loves helping others.
“If I was given the choice between lying on a beach and building a house, I would choose the latter because I enjoy it more,” he said. “Also, there is no better feeling then at the end of the day saying ‘I made a difference for the better.'”