Volunteering to Help Rebuild New Orleans

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written by Ellen Freudenheim, MPH

New Orleans still needs help, and volunteer opportunities exist for short and long term stays.

Want to do a volunteer project that you won’t regret – and may remember fondly for a lifetime? Spend a little time, or a few months, helping the ongoing recovery effort in one of American’s most colorful cities, New Orleans. It’s still struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which struck on August 29, 2005.

Four Ways To Help the New Orleans Recovery Effort:

  1. Connect with a Suitable Project through New Orleans’ Volunteer Registry

    Not sure how to start? Here’s where to look. The non-profit Hands On New Orleans connects volunteers – individuals, groups of friends, school groups, faith-based organizations, clubs, and even corporate teams – to short and long term Katrina recovery projects. Their Web site features a calendar of activities mapped out a year in advance.

    Using a drop down menu, you can specify what you’re looking for. Volunteers can opt for projects suitable for families, beginners and teams, specify what neighborhood you want to work in, or what kinds of projects you want to work on, from education to healthcare to building. Interested in the digital divide and bringing New Orleans’ large poor community into the cyber world? Or perhaps you’d like to work with a specific demographic group: young school age children, teens, the elderly, the infirm? The site lists a huge menu of options.

    Hands On New Orleans also offers basic dormitory accommodation for up to 50 volunteers; book in advance.

  2. Rebuild Homes and Neighborhoods

    All kinds of volunteers are welcome for building projects, from trained carpenters and electricians to unskilled workers who never before hammered a nail. If you want to help build homes, you can specify if you want to work on electrical, framing, dry wall or a dozen other specific construction tasks.

    Many local groups are engaged in rebuilding homes, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood. Two of the best to connect with are:

    • Hands On New Orleans. An umbrella group for local organizations, their online day-by-day calendar lists which projects are scheduled for the next six to eight months, along with information, safety tips, and more.
    • Habitat for Humanity. Habitat has 46 homes under construction and has finished over five dozen more in an area called Musicians Village.
  3. Address the Ongoing Crisis of Homelessness

    One of the bitter ironies of the post-Katrina housing crisis is that many of the city’s homeless people are hidden in plain sight. Martha Landrum, spokesperson for Greater New Orleans Foundation, said, “We have so many blighted buildings the homeless are out of sight. But they are living in squalor in abandoned, blighted properties.”

    The non-profit organization UNITY addresses this population. Volunteers can work at their warehouse and help sort and inventory donated household goods and make bedding kits and toiletry kits. UNITY volunteers get a brief policy orientation to the situation of homelessness in pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans.

    Says Landrum continued, “At night, some members of this group comb the city and find homeless people – often, elderly people who have lost their social network—and then move them to small, bare bones apartments furnished with just the basics, like a bed and a table. Still, they need so much: not just a roof over their heads but the stuff that makes a home: lamps and plates, forks and knives and comforters and quilts. They’ve lost everything.”

  4. Send or Raise Money to Local Non Profits “On the Ground”

    The Greater New Orleans Foundation reviews proposals from hundreds of community-based groups, and selectively funds about 50 local groups “with boots on the ground” who are working across a broad spectrum of need in the city, from housing and health care to culture. To help rebuild New Orleans, you can send a check, or hold a fundraiser in your own community to make a contribution to the Greater New Orleans Foundation, Hands On, Unity or your own civic service or faith-based charity.

As for the practicalities as a volunteer, consider when to go. The summer’s awfully hot, so instead book ahead for the spring or autumn. But here’s an important travelers’ advisory: you might just find yourself falling in love with food, music and terrific attitude of those who are committed to rebuilding the Big Easy, and it might be hard to leave.

New Orleans is on the road to recovery, but it will be a long journey. Help if you can.

For More Information:
Habitat for Humanity New Orleans
Hands On New Orleans
Greater New Orleans Foundation
Unity