On May 19th New Orleans welcomed hundreds of current and alumni AmeriCorps members as well as countless community and corporate volunteers to kick off the 2015 Build-a-Thon. 10 homes in 10 days was the lofty goal but it was met with nothing but determination, a nod to the continued recovery from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the levee failures that left much of New Orleans underwater almost 10 years ago.
Rebuilding America Street was the task at hand for these eager, hard-working volunteers –including 14 of Habitat for Humanity Portland/Metro East’s own AmeriCorps members. Build-a-Thon volunteers worked tirelessly for 10 days –framing walls, laying roofing, and even insulating with recycled denim— all ensuring 10 deserving families would have the opportunity to buy high-quality, affordable homes in this East New Orleans neighborhood. Even 10 years after the devastation America Street is still lined with homes that are boarded up, unoccupied, and sometimes still full of debris and overgrown with vegetation. Now 10 homes closer to its former glory the community is re-invigorated and thrilled with the progress and the commitment to the community shown by everyone.
“On America Street we got to work alongside partner families that embody a sense of strength,” said Leslee Humphrey, an AmeriCorps member serving here in Portland. “They told us stories of rebuilding their own lives after the storm and the pervasive spirit of resilience in this rich, vibrant community really stood out. We were welcomed with opened arms and gratitude for the energy and investment we were making in the community.”
While in New Orleans AmeriCorps members also took some time to learn more about the city and the levee failures that exacerbated the destructive forces of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. We visited museums, spoke with local residents, and took care to learn the history of the community we were working in.
“Building in New Orleans was a very personal and powerful experience for me,” said Jessica Jazdzewski, another Portland AmeriCorps member. “I have several friends who lost their homes and possessions to Katrina and every single one of them went through the painful process of mourning and putting their lives back together. Once you spend some time in New Orleans, you can quickly understand why they’re still there and why they can’t imagine living anywhere else. The city has a rare and irreplaceable vitality that is infectious.”
Build-a-Thon 2015 marks another significant milestone, the 20 year partnership between Habitat for Humanity and AmeriCorps. Since this partnership was formed over 8,000 individuals have served as AmeriCorps members with Habitat affiliates across the nation, helping more than 20,000 families access safe, affordable housing. Here in New Orleans and across the Gulf Coast this partnership has been especially impactful.
“Of all the incredible support and aid that the federal government has given to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast –the best thing they ever gave us came in a gray t-shirt with the AmeriCorps emblem on the breast,” said Jim Pate, Executive Director of the New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity.
For many AmeriCorps members, who do office work, Build-a-Thon is the only time they will spend on a build site during their year of service. For other members it is another day of construction, albeit in more humid conditions. But for everyone it was a humbling, educational, and thoroughly rewarding experience.
“Through this experience I began to tangibly understand that housing issues are not a concern that is exclusively related to a high cost of living in cities like Portland,” said Shelby Pierce, Portland AmeriCorps member. “The need for affordable housing comes from a myriad of obstacles, including natural disasters. Different affiliates face different concerns but in the end we are all helping advance the mission of affordable homeownership together. Build-a-Thon was a wonderful opportunity to join forces in hopes of reaching our end goal –a world where everyone has a safe, decent, affordable place to call home.”