When I first heard the series “This I Believe” I asked myself what it was in my life that I truly believed in. I couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer. That’s not to say that I considered myself to be some angst-filled teenager incapable of connecting with the world around me. Rather, I felt that there was no one thing I truly believed in above all else.
That changed this January when I took a class through my college during the last three weeks of winter break. Along with my classmates, I moved to the Common Ground Collective in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans. For three weeks we spent our days gutting flood-damaged houses in the Lower Ninth, helping evicted families move out of their apartments, and cleaning up trash in the still debris-littered Seventh Ward.
My first day gutting houses opened my eyes to the reality of life in this country. Imagine walking up to a house that withstood hundred-plus mile an hour winds only to be flooded by up to fifteen feet of stagnant water for a month. The outside of houses bore visible watermarks, showing where the water sat, then receded, then rose, then receded. Once the water finally retreated back to the canals and Lake Pontchartrain, residents were told they could not return, that it was illegal to attempt to clean up their houses. For fifteen months, houses were overtaken by toxic black mold as it destroyed furniture, walls, appliances, and most importantly photographs and memories.
In one of the bedrooms of the first house I gutted, I found flashcards. These probably had no significant meaning for the owners of the house. They were simply study notes for a test. But reflected in those flashcards I saw myself. I saw that the girl whose room I was in was not much different from me. She too was a student who spent her nights studying for exams. But unlike me, she had faced true tragedy in a country that despite its ideals does not care about her or the two people who were found dead in her house two months after the storm. A country, which a year and half after facing Hurricane Katrina, has forgotten. A country, which has assumed that since the Saints made the playoffs, New Orleans has returned.
The residents I met in New Orleans truly formed my experience. I talked to people who had lived in the same house their entire lives only to see it, and all of their possessions, washed away during the storm. Yet, each I spoke to had such incredible hope for what could happen. I met people who refused to move away despite the years it will take to rebuild their homes and lives. These residents instilled in me a hope that I’ve never felt before. It is a faith in people to do what’s right despite governmental and institutional failures. Previously I had lost faith in the ability of the individual to change anything. That doubt and uncertainty within me is gone. I saw so many acts of individual humanity, illuminated by an environment of harsh indifference, that I now truly believe that ordinary people can become extraordinary and can change the world.
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