New Orleans children smile their appreciation of Brenna Haggarty's help during reading class.
ST. ALBERT — In 2005, Hurricane Katrina wiped out homes in New Orleans. More than 1,800 people died. Churches, schools and playgrounds lay in ruins. Property damage was an estimated $81 billion, making the natural disaster the deadliest and costliest in U.S. history.
While the devastation has fallen from the news headlines, the need to rebuild remains great. Students from two Catholic high schools in St. Albert have worked hard to help the people there.
A group of 20 students from Ecole Secondaire Ste. Marguerite d'Youville and seven adults went on a mission trip to the city, Feb. 5 to 13. A second group of 22 students from St. Albert Catholic High School and eight adults will be in New Orleans March 22 to 30.
Danielle Karaki, the school vice-principal who coordinated the first trip, linked the mission to the school's patron, St. Marguerite d'Youville, and her life of service.
Of her students, she said, "I think it ignited something in them to continue with that life of service which is why we put this mission together."
In New Orleans, the students helped rebuild homes, fed the homeless in a soup kitchen and planted 2,000 cypress saplings in the bayou. They also met with people who suffered through the ordeal of Katrina.
"With the parish we were working with, over 70 per cent of them lost their homes completely," said Karaki. "That was just shocking, talking to people that lost everything.
"The students were impressed that they were still so positive, so faith-filled. That's what helped them find their faith, knowing that God was with them to protect them."
The students, she said, were struck by the sight of destroyed homes where reconstruction has not even begun. "That was really moving for the students to see that it's been so long and yet there's still so much to do."
For the mission team, it was a sobering experience to stand in a vacant field where an entire block of houses once stood. In other parts of the city, they saw blocks and blocks of abandoned homes, stores, churches and shopping malls.
Doug Kramer, an adult chaperone with the mission teams, said the students worked on three construction projects. "We spent three days with our arms in the air mudding drywall, and sanding, getting it all prepped for painting."
They visited a Catholic elementary school in the French quarter, helping students with their studies and hearing their stories about Katrina's impact on their lives. They met a girl in Grade 5, still hopeful about reuniting with her parents who she has not seen since 2005.
Their trip was set up through the St. Bernard Project, which coordinates volunteers going to New Orleans. The need for volunteers and donations is still great. Now that they are back in St. Albert, the students are considering raising more money for the St. Bernard Project.
The deeper response was in their hearts.
Sister Judy gave a spirited team briefing to the teens before they left for their assignments.
"The attitude the kids came back with was just not taking anything for granted and having an attitude of thanksgiving and joy, and ignoring all of the little trivial stuff that we get upset about up here," said Kramer.
The people of New Orleans, he said, "had joy that was unmatched."
Karaki agreed. It was incredible to meet people who had gone through such tragedy, but were able to endure by staying close to God, she said.
Kramer said before the trip began the students were eager to work and saw the trip as a good team-building exercise.
"But a transformation happened through the course of hearing the stories of people who spent three days on the roof of their house, or swimming across the street to get to the neighbour's place, or spending nights on a bridge stranded, and people's houses literally floating away."
Meanwhile, at St. Albert High, Teresa Rieger, the school's career counsellor, is getting students ready for their trip later in March.
Rieger hopes the trip will help the kids develop a social conscience and develop "a good understanding of how what they do affects others."
As a career counsellor, she sees the experience as a chance for the students to become global citizens and gain wisdom that can be used on their prospective career paths. While a main purpose of the mission trip is to help the people of New Orleans, it's also a personal growth opportunity for the St. Albert students.
"I've seen tremendous growth in the kids already in the teamwork we've been doing, all the planning and fundraising, the organizing and the type of fundamental skills that they are building. This has allowed them so many opportunities already," said Rieger.
By venturing down to New Orleans, Geoffrey Durocher, a student from St. Albert Catholic High School, expects "a good surprise."
"It should be a big awakening how fortunate we are here and how much they've lost," said Durocher. "We've also been talking about getting into the school system there and interacting with some of the kids there and hearing their stories."
The mission teams had to raise about $40,000 each. The second mission team has been busy raising money through activities such as a silent auction, selling chocolates, bottle drives, a raffle and a 24-hour hockey-a-thon.