ORONO, Maine — Tired but elated, 11 teenagers from Orono and Old Town, and about half as many adult chaperones, returned Monday night from a weeklong visit to New Orleans.
This group didn’t go there to soak up the sun or bask in the relative warmth of the South. Their mission was to help build homes near New Orleans’ hurricane-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward.
All of the teens belong to the Orono-based Church of Universal Fellowship and they paid for the trip themselves through a series of fundraisers that netted them $8,300.
Though none had formal training in construction, the students, who have dubbed their group Young Adults with Pizzazz, spent 10 to 12 hours a day during their weeklong February school vacation painting, sanding, plastering and installing drywall, among other things.
“They taught us what we needed to know,” said Old Town High School sophomore Cody St. Louis.
“It was amazing,” Orono High School junior Alyssa Bates said Monday evening, shortly after the group’s drive to Orono from the Portland International Jetport. “We learned so much.”
“It was nothing like you’ve ever seen before — the culture, the people. They’re all so open,” said Carolyn Artesani, also a junior at Orono High.
While in Louisiana, the group worked with the St. Bernard project, which according to its Web site was established to help those who want to return to their homes in St. Bernard Parish, described as a “uniquely tight-knit, working/middle class community adjacent to New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. [It is] arguably the area hardest hit by hurricane Katrina.”
Although more than three years have passed since Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc, much of the region remains in shambles.
In a blog maintained by the Orono church’s delegation to New Orleans, Old Town High School senior Gabi do Ameral describes a driving tour of the Lower Ninth Ward:
“The damage there was unbelievable. It seemed that no work had been done to revitalize the area and almost every house was completely destroyed.
“We got to see the levee that was protecting the neighborhood and were surprised to see a boat pass by above us. The water level was higher than we were on the road below. There was an ‘X’ on every door that told the story of the home after the flood. In each quadrant of the ‘X,’ information about how many bodies were found, the date the home was searched and the group who searched it was displayed.
“The scene was surreal. So many people lost their homes! We couldn’t believe the difference between this area and the abundance of wealth that was evident in the Garden District that we toured later.”
More of the group’s thoughts and photos of the trip are available on the blog at: www.yawpinnola.blogspot.com.
Other students who went to New Orleans were Emilie Bottie, Leila Doerfler, Holli Kenison and Liz Leavitt from Orono High, and Erin St. Peter and Jake St. Peter of Old Town High.
What little down time the teens had was used for brief excursions to the famed French Quarter and a Mardi Gras parade, where they scooped up strands of beads.
One strand went to Gov. John Baldacci, who wound up on the same flight to Portland on Monday while on his way back from Washington, D.C., where he participated in the winter conference of the National Governors’ Association. Baldacci thanked the teens for the beads but wondered how he would explain them to the first lady.