My Alternative Spring Break Experience: Part Three

ASB Day 3 (February 16th, 2016): Paint and progress.

Today was: amusing, fulfilling, heartwarming.

This morning, we arrived at the Habitat build site where we would be spending the next four days. There had already been significant progress made on the house we were assigned by previous groups, but as is with all colossal projects, a lot more work was still to be done. Again, we were split into teams and allowed to choose our tasks for the day – I, an inveterate lover of sunshine and the great outdoors, opted to join a few other teammates in painting the interior.  The rest of the team remained outside, siding the back of the house.

Our painting task was facile and straightforward, and after some time the repetitive brush strokes took on a calming, almost therapeutic quality. Due to the almost leisurely nature of our work, I was able to converse quite extensively with two other members of the team who were painting in the same room. I was surprised at how effortlessly we were able to talk about everything from friends and family to mutual interests to career aspirations, despite this being my first concrete conversation with either one of them. I found this to be a common occurrence in my subsequent dialogue with other members of the NOLA team, and I am still attempting to comprehend why.

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During lunch, we met Avery, the outreach coordinator for NOAHH (New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity), who spoke to us about the integral and momentous work Habitat is doing in empowering families through home ownership, particularly following Hurricane Katrina. She elucidated the sustainability and support networks intrinsic in Habitat operations, a quality I deeply admire about the organization. All mortgages for Habitat homes are completely interest and down-payment free, and monthly payment amounts are set according to household income. In addition, families meet with a case manager once a month, who ensure they are on track with their next mortgage payment, and offer immediate assistance if that is not the case.

I also value Habitat’s emphasis on sweat equity, which requires home owners to spend 500 hours building their own homes, or other homes in the neighbourhood. This practice fosters community relationships and gives families an unparalleled appreciation of the herculean efforts that go into home building and restoration.

After we returned to work, the rest of the day was spent in laughter, conversation and a whole lot of Beyoncé.

Looking back, it is striking to realize the immense progress we made in our skills and attitudes in just one day. I’d like to believe that I’d mastered the perfect paint stroke (Picasso who?), learned to adapt to the minute mishaps that undoubtedly accompany any foreign undertaking, and grown astonishingly comfortable with the rest of the ‘paint crew’. The last sentence of my journal entry for that day captures my final thoughts: “I’m happy to be busy, but perhaps happier that I’m busy alongside people who embody kindness, serenity and acceptance so effortlessly.”

ASB Day 4 (February, 17th): “Not Horrible.”

Today was quite the experience.

We resumed working on the painting task from the day before with just one coat left to finish. We were substantially quicker with this last coat, possibly because everyone was accustomed with the work, and we’d chosen duties best suited to our abilities (with vertical advantage being the most eminent one). I felt immense pride looking at our work after we’d finished – it was strangely fulfilling to know that we’d somehow made this home more complete. There is an odd comfort in shared accomplishments, and I knew I would miss that when I returned.

Our paint crew then split up – I and a few others were assigned to nail in vapour paper on the outside of the house before siding could be started. I realized this task entailed climbing a 24-foot ladder, which didn’t seem terribly daunting. Then I realized we had to climb the ladder while it was propped up on a set of wooden stairs, which may or may not have collapsed earlier. Oh.

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The first time I went up the ladder I was markedly petrified, but words of encouragement and invigoration from team members (sometimes just one) were inimitably reassuring. After we had put up quite a bit of paper, we stepped back to survey our work…and realized we had royally messed up. In practical terms, this meant we needed to remove all the nails we had just put up, and make the oh-so-ecstatic return up the ladder. The rest of the day was full of such disappointments, but more importantly, many minute (but not insignificant) victories. I realized then that our victories were more salient and memorable to me than our failures, and this was quite a striking shift in thought. Previously, I have found myself unable to fully appreciate accomplishments because so often they seem to be simply offsetting previous defeats – so I let them feel normal when they should be cherished. I hope this new-found love of self-triumph is a perennial change in my introspective idea of self, or at least a stepping stone to one.

After we returned back to Camp ReStore, we participated in one of my most memorable reflection sessions of the trip. Reflection was an integral aspect of our service learning trip – it allowed us to share our thoughts, experiences and sentiments in an open and receptive space, and helped us ponder on the broader impact of our actions on ourselves and the community we were serving. We listened to an informative podcast on Hurricane Katrina, which emphasized how an inadequate institutional response and the systemic racial and class disparities inherent in Louisiana had perpetuated the disaster. The most striking anecdote in the podcast involved a conversation with a chief of staff of the council in charge of making executive decisions regarding resource management in New Orleans. She expressed concern in allocating funds to the Lower Ninth Ward, deeming it an unviable and withering community. When prodded further, she admitted that she had never in fact step foot in the Lower Ninth Ward. This, to me, illustrates a particularly asinine shortcoming in our institutional hierarchy: those in power are so engrossed in the malicious politics of their work that they have become indifferent to the anguish and suffering of entire communities. The individuals on whom we bestow the immense authority of making decisions impacting hundreds and thousands of lives have absolutely no knowledge or concern for the people they supposedly represent. How can the developed world boast about freedom, equality and democratic success when this is our reality?

To be continued,

Maham

**All images courtesy of Jordan Coop

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