Friday, July 07, 2006

Welcome Home

The road is Natalie Denee. It is not yet on any map we could find. I was in charge of leading 18 people to Natalie Denee and so far my leadership efforts had only led us to a Taco Bell in Thibodaux, Louisiana. I asked the girl behind the counter if she had heard of a large Habitat for Humanity neighborhood that was going in nearby. She said no. I asked her if she had a phonebook. She said, “It’s Sunday.”

Welcome to Louisiana. Where apparently the people follow God’s lead and rest (away from phones) on Sunday.

By the time our two vans arrived on Natalie Denee we were all a bit irritable. The journey had not been a smooth one and now that we were out of the air conditioned vans it became quite clear why looks of horror had covered the faces of all who heard we were traveling to Louisiana in July. I live in Sacramento, California, where I am quite used to 110 degree heat. Louisiana humidity, however, I am not used to. Holy hell in a frying pan, Louisiana is hot.

After we all promptly soaked our clothes with sweat we took inventory of our surroundings. We were standing in the middle of a neighborhood-in-progress. Some 80 families would reside here when the neighborhood was finished, some twenty or so houses were in various stages of construction upon our arrival. We were directed to the first two completed homes, where we would be staying for the week. There would be ten people to a house, cots to hold our dehydrated bodies.

We unloaded our vans and started cramming three or four cots in each room. Then we started questioning our vacation choices. What kind of person pays for the privilege of traveling to Louisiana in the summer to engage in manual labor and close living conditions? My kind of person, as it turns out. I’d organized this trip, randomly assembling strangers from throughout the country who could think of no better way to spend a week than to go to Louisiana and help bring a little hope to an area that seemed in desperate need of some.

Shortly after our group arrived we gathered together with other volunteers and some of the families that would inhabit the homes we were building. One by one these families stood up and told a little bit of what is sure to be a very long story. They each thanked us for coming to help, they each thanked God for a new beginning, they each made the heat and the sleeping conditions seem not so bad after all.

These people, these stories, they were why we were here. You could see that their stories were starting to take on a happier tone, that smiles were returning to faces that might have been missing them lately. Those smiles were the reason we were here. And from the moment we saw those smiles we never again felt like we were giving anything. The word “giving” implies putting out more than you are taking in. Nothing we could ever give would match what we got from those faces.

One by one the volunteers stood up and introduced themselves. They were young and old, from all points of our country’s map, all so grateful to be here. To be able to do SOMETHING, because just watching from a distance wasn’t enough anymore.

The 18 people in my group were traveling with Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village program. Normally this program involves groups traveling to various destinations throughout the globe and working with families to build homes and futures in faraway places. I had participated in the program before and found it to be one of the best experiences of my life. It was a way for me to meet some great people, do a little good, and really see a country, instead of just bing a tourist looking for my next photo op. Working with Habitat and alongside residents gave me a unique “in” with the locals of the foreign place I was visiting. And seeing a country from their point of view seemed like the only way to bother looking at all.

This time instead of traveling abroad I wanted to go help people in my own country. And more than anything I wanted to see things from their point of view. Every day on the work site I talked to a new partner family who was there putting in their sweat equity hours. I heard their stories of survival and of starting over. There were different levels of loss in their eyes. Some had lost all of their possessions, some had lost so much more. And yet here they were, fiercely moving forward, defiantly ignoring anything close to self-pity or defeat. Here they were both literally and figuratively rebuilding their lives.

Our group of 18 tried our best to see as much as we could of those lives. We ate as much fried seafood as our arteries could handle. We listened to some old men play their accordions down at the cultural center. Who knew people even still owned accordions, let alone three or four? Now we know. We also know that alligators have a keen sense of hearing and can be called by humans they are used to. In Louisiana even the alligators are called “Baby”. We learned that Miss Jennifer is 24 years old and has four kids, one of whom thinks he is Spiderman, “He just jumps off of things.” We learned that no matter how cynical you are you bow your head when Miss Ida prays, because if anyone has the ear of God it would be that 63 year old woman, her dark face lined with history and hope, her sunken eyes glimmering with kindness. We learned that Miss Paula likes the color green and that she hopes Nate will design around the soap dispenser her daughter bought her.

Oh, and we learned that Oprah is coming. Oprah is sponsoring some of these houses and sometime in August she will come dedicate the homes to the new residents. Before that her designer Nate will make each home beautiful and the rest of the Oprah crew will fill the house with furniture and food. We learned all of this before the homeowners did and we kept it a secret from them. After they found out they were all insanely excited, another smile added to their growing stash.

I’m happy for these families. I’m happy that they will get a brush with fame and will get their houses “pimped out” by Miss Oprah. But I suspect after Oprah exits and the camera crews move on this neighborhood will settle into itself and it will become much more than “Oprah’s Neighborhood”, or even “Katrina’s Neighborhood”. What it will be called I do not know, but that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Starting again, creating a new place, a new community, a new hope. No one knows for sure what the future holds for the residents of this new neighborhood, but I think we all know it is off to a great start.

The road is Natalie Denee. More than just a collection of houses and an assortment of families this street represents hope and future. For everyone individually and for everyone as a group. Starting over is never an easy thing, yet somehow this neighborhood doesn’t just feel like a start, it almost feels like a finish as well. Finally, after months of being displaced, of living in trashed homes, of wading through the storm, it seems as though these people are done now. They have a place to lay their children for sleep, they have space to breathe again, they have a little peace and quiet. Most of all they have each other. Once scattered people, they are now free to start growing roots again, together.

Welcome home y’all.


Stephanie said...

Usually your blogs make me laugh, this one made me cry (out of happiness). You have a great heart!

Anonymous said...

Baaabbbyyy...fabulous, Dawn, from one who was there alongside you :)

Patricia said...

i can't think of a better, more important gift than that of giving someone a sense of home.

Anonymous said...

Dawn I enjoyed that like icing on the cake!!
Joe I.

Anonymous said...

You guys are so awesome--I'm so proud of you. I could feel the depth of your experience through your writing-- that's amazing! It really touched me and took me back to Honduras. Thank you for sharing. Count me in for the next trip! Elisa