The cultural vibrancy of New Orleans shines during Mount service trip.

Group of students with Mount wear lean against a gate with a building in the background

When the email popped into my inbox about the New Orleans (NOLA) service trip, I immediately filled out the application to be considered to go. I knew that this was an experience I wanted to be a part of. One of my favorite memories from high school was going on several service trips to Liberty, Ky. The best part about these trips was getting to serve the community around me and being outdoors.

I liked nothing more than getting to work hard and using my hands to peel garlic and pull weeds. It gave me a sense of joy to know that I was making a positive difference and utilizing my time in a substantial way. When I found out that my application had been chosen, I looked forward to feeling the same way all over again.

While the drive down to New Orleans from Cincinnati was long, it was worth the wait once we arrived. One of the most memorable views on the first day was passing Lake Pontchartrain. It was a gorgeous sight: the sun shone brightly in the sky and the blue waters shimmered. You could see nothing but the vast expanse of water on either side of the van and I was in awe.

After passing Lake Pontchartrain, we drove through downtown New Orleans, and headed into the suburbs. We had made it, excited to stretch our legs, at the House of Charity, where we’d be staying for the next several days. Our gracious hosts were Sisters Monica Gundler and Patty Huffman, who cooked us a delicious meal. The flavorful and rich jambalaya and red beans and rice were exactly what I was craving.

For our service experience, we partnered with a non-profit disaster relief organization called SBP. They were named after St. Bernard Parish in New Orleans, and they help to rebuild homes that were damaged by natural disasters and construct new affordable housing. As a result, people who lost their homes can have a warm comfortable place to live again. With SBP’s efforts, there is hope of decreasing the homeless population rate in New Orleans.

During our first two days of service, we worked on a new home that was being built in a suburb on New Orleans’ east side. Our role was to do the exterior painting, both the trim and the siding of the home. Eager to begin, I grabbed a paint tray and a roller, along with a ladder and started coating the trim and its underside with white.

NOLA-Hess-Photo-2.pngIn photo: Hess painting house siding

Although most of our efforts went into painting that one home, it's wonderful to think about when a family moves into it someday. They can have something to be proud of and claim as their own. With this thought in mind, I made sure not to miss any spots and was meticulous about the minute details. I finished each day with paint splatters on my clothes and face, happy with a job well done.

Being in New Orleans, even just for several days, made me realize how unpredictable their weather is. I got a first-hand experience of this one evening when we were supposed to go out for the night. However, it was discovered that there were tornadoes in the area. To be cautious, we all piled into the pantry off their kitchen, because that is where the sisters go if there is a tornado warning. Fortunately, it wasn’t too long of a wait before we could come out and were in the clear. The worst weather we ended up getting were thunderstorms and heavy winds.

After leaving the pantry, I made my way into the living room, where the sisters had a local news station on the television covering the weather. To my shock, I saw that there were tornadoes that struck the area of New Orleans we were supposed to visit that evening. We had dodged a major bullet. I felt lucky that our group had made it through unscathed. At the same time, I couldn’t help but feel devastated for the people who had their property damaged.

 The storm damage that night reminded me of our group’s purpose of being present and helping rebuild. In doing so, we aid families in finding normalcy again, so that they can feel safe and secure where they are. Although we could only work on one home at a time, I was confident that the work we were putting in was making a positive difference.

While we are unable to eradicate the occurrence of natural disasters, what we can do is strive towards being more compassionate and caring people. Not just during a crisis, but each day. We won’t have to face these types of challenges alone if we have people around who desire to see us thrive again. Ultimately, they will come through when we need it most.

While the service trip is over, the spirit of New Orleans continues to resonate with me. During our last night, I saw something incredible happen. Our group was walking through the French Quarter, doing some gift shopping, when we spotted a wedding party emerging from a building across the street. Along with the wedding party, there was a jazz band, and it was like magic when they started to play. Many people gathered to watch the show. Loud, vibrant sounds filled the cool air, and the bride started to dance in the street, without a care in the world.

Imagine letting yourself be that open and free, embracing the moment, because it's yours for the taking. Soon, the rest of the wedding party was dancing too, and with the band leading the way, they made their way down the road, bursting with excitement and energy. After the commotion died down, we kept walking, but a sight like that was unforgettable.

New Orleans is a place of extremes, we were told before we went on the trip, and after visiting the city myself, I grew to understand how true this was. For as much richness there is in culture and food, there is plenty of poverty and homelessness that exists in the same space. It is a place that has survived many tragedies, including Hurricane Katrina.

But what I’ve discovered is that the people of New Orleans are resilient despite these disasters. They continue to make the best of their circumstances and aren’t afraid to enjoy life for its own sake, despite problems. It’s an important lesson I can take from this trip, that I can embody that same resilience in my circumstances, whatever they may be.

Also, like the bride we encountered in the French Quarter, I can give myself the freedom to dance and smile, because life’s too short not to be happy.