Youth in Action fills New Orleans suburb with hope, help
Sixteen months later, many houses still sit untouched, their contents mired in muck, their owners unable to clean them out.
Providing a ray of hope in what remains a desperate situation, nearly 400 teenagers from Churches of Christ in at least three states took time from their holiday break to converge on Chalmette this week.
The Youth in Action participants came to gut houses, listen to homeowners’ stories and show Jesus to weary residents, organizers said.
“This isn’t about the homes. This is about the people,” said Youth In Action coordinator Chris Harrell, youth minister of the Southwest church in Jonesboro, Ark.
“And these kids care about the folks who live here enough to give up their Christmas holiday to come here and show the love of Christ to them.”
Youth in Action partnered with Hilltop Rescue and Relief, a ministry of the Hilltop Community Church of Christ in El Segundo, Calif. The teens are staying at a public elementary school where Hilltop has housed thousands of volunteers in the post-Katrina relief effort.
Youth groups from 14 congregations drove up to 17 hours from Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas to “sleep on cots, take cold showers and eat what’s being served to them,” Harrell said.
A trio of 13-year-old girls from the White Station church in Memphis, Tenn., talked excitedly over dinner Thursday night – not about clothes or music, but about stripping Sheetrock.
“Oh yeah, tearing down that wall was the best part!” said Audrey Sharp, who spent the day standing in 4 inches of water with friends Anna Baskett and Emma Galloway.
The girls each said they felt a connection with the woman who owned the home as they carefully sorted photos and personal treasures from the trash they tossed into piles outside. Her memories will, in a way, become some of the memories they take home with them after the work is done.
“It was overwhelming, in a way, to think the mess we were looking at was so much of her life,” Galloway said.
Similar stories were heard throughout the dining hall, as teens and their sponsors dug into steaming bowls of gumbo, green beans and garlic toast.
Justin Black, 15, played with young evacuees who filled his home congregation, the Goodman Oaks church in Southaven, Miss., in 2005. Now he’s doing his part again, ripping out molded carpet in a home with friends William Marino, Miles Williams and TJ Jones.
“Working today made me think about how hard it would be to start your life over from scratch,” Black said.
A light drizzle added another layer of grime Thursday to 17-year-old Simone Hughley’s work clothes. As she stood inside Hilltop’s makeshift Laundromat waiting for the spin cycle to finish, she thought about the images that had flashed across her television screen in the days and weeks after the hurricane hit here.
Hughley’s group, from the Fairview church in Columbia, Mo., drove 849 miles over two days to get here. But her desire to come began after the storm.
“I remember watching the news on TV, feeling so helpless because I couldn’t help anyone here,” she said. “I was a little surprised when I got here because in many ways, it still looks like it did on television.”
Jennifer Huntley, one of Fairview’s sponsors, said they spent time talking that day with the owner of the home they had mucked – an elderly, disabled woman. Tears filled Huntley’s eyes as she spoke.
“There are no selfless acts,” she said. “We definitely get more from this than we’re giving these people.”
Residents here would argue that point. Facing a “do or demolish” deadline, the urgency to clear the contents of these homes has reached a fever pitch. Piles of trash – the collective contents of homes across the city – line the streets.
Jeff Ray’s family decided about four months ago they would be part of this effort, after a representative from Hilltop made a presentation at the College Hills church in Lebanon, Tenn. A group of 18 made the trip this week.
Jeff’s wife, Marcia, and his three children – all students at Lipscomb University in Nashville – had made trips with Youth in Action before. But nothing like this, Jeff Ray said.
“I was prepared for the work, but not as much for how this city looks and feels now,” Jeff Ray said. “Driving through here, you’re struck by how condemned, empty, desolate it is. The businesses that are open again are very spread out.”
Dylan Ray, 19, spent the day with his older sisters Casi, 20, and Jessi, 22, hauling wet lumber and pulling out ruined appliances. This trip, while different in many ways, would no doubt become a treasured memory once his children were on their own, Jeff Ray said.
“We’ve always been a close family, but coming here has added a new dimension to that,” he said. “When you’re able to accomplish something like this together, really touching someone’s life and then praying with them … it hits home.”