The Great American South

I have always enjoyed volunteering, which I suppose is why I went to Tanzania with YCI in the first place. I find that there is an honesty, humility and energy when you are volunteering that is not present in the rest of our every day lives. Unfortunately, since I’ve been working in the office here for the past two years, I’ve found it much more difficult to volunteer than I did when I was a student. I give a lot of respect to people who have full time jobs and volunteer on a regular basis, because it can be tough to stay active. So, when I got the idea to plan a trip down to New Orleans to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity I was very excited to spend some quality time working as a volunteer again.

 I took off for two and a half weeks and drove with my boyfriend all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico and back again, leaving time to take in sights of the ‘great American south’ along the way. I was surprised to experience culture shock on the trip that reminded me of times when I’ve been overseas. I was reminded that North America is a huge continent with lots of differences in culture and history to experience.

Some of the road trip highlights included activities like swamp touring in Louisiana, chili tasting in West Virginia and line-dancing lessons in Tennessee. We visited historic sites like the birthplace, assassination site and tomb of Martin Luther King jr., and learned about the history of American music by strolling Beale Street in Memphis, the ‘Honky-Tonk Highway’ in Nashville, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

Once in New Orleans, we spent 4 days on site with HFH working on new builds in the Lower Ninth Ward. We had the honour of meeting one of the homeowners-to-be and getting to know the local community in the area. We experienced the learning, motivation and inspiration that are common when volunteering in a new environment. We heard stories of loss and devastation and saw for ourselves the astonishing lack of progress rebuilding the ward that was hit hardest by the Katrina floodwaters. Only a small percentage of pre-Katrina residents in the lower ninth have returned to their homes. Many are still waiting for insurance money or other finances to come through and many more have given up entirely and have relocated to other states where they will start again.

Beyond the poverty and controversy that has been plaguing New Orleans since 2005, I found that there is still hope. I really enjoyed taking part in the productive and important work HFH is doing in the Gulf of Mexico. I was encouraged by the people I met and to see that some small steps have been made. My time painting, hammering and insulating on the build has refreshed my spirit and enthusiasm to be engaged and work to make a difference. Now that I am back in Canada I plan on continuing my volunteer commitment by working with HFH in Toronto and taking part in other activities in the Toronto area as I am able.

 As we head into fall, I will be stepping down from my role of Volunteer Coordinator at YCI so that I can pursue a master’s degree. I’ve been accepted into Ryerson’s Public Policy and Administration program and will be focusing on my studies for the next year – but I will still be around the YCI office and volunteering with the Volunteer Action Network and the youth engagement program.

I want to say thank you to all the volunteers who I have connected with over the last couple years – it is your spirit and hard work that keeps YCI moving forward. I have confidence this will continue for many years to come.

Laura Gourley, Volunteer Programs Coordinator 

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