UMES volunteers travel to ravaged New Orleans to make a difference
I wasn't ready for what I saw," said Janiece Blackmon."There were whole neighborhoods that hadn't been touched."
"There are a thousand houses -- 10,000 houses -- still standing, waiting to be bulldozed," said Kathryn Barrett-Gaines. "There were miles and miles and miles of empty spaces where houses used to be, houses still on top of cars."
A year after Hurricane Katrina, Barrett-Gaines, a former Big Easy resident and current University of Maryland Eastern Shore faculty member, decided she needed to see the city for herself.
"I have a mild obsession with New Orleans," said Barrett-Gaines. "I had to go and I thought, 'Why don't we make this into an opportunity?'"
She contacted Xavier University, the New Orleans college where she used to teach, and arranged for a group of UMES students, faculty and friends to spend a week in January volunteering with the group ACORN.
Blackmon, a recent UMES graduate, was one of the 22 people to make the trip. "I didn't want to be one of those people who just talks about what should be done without doing anything myself," said Blackmon.
They worked on one house for three days, tearing up carpet and taking down walls. "We were upstairs just throwing things out the windows, and you would pick up little troll dolls and Barbies and books," said Blackmon. "When you see people's personal items, you really start thinking about the lives that they led. And it hurts -- it really, really does."
"You just suddenly realize that you're in an area that was under water and full of dead people," said Barrett-Gaines. "And that's not news to anybody; you just don't understand it until you go there." Everything about the trip surprised them, from the lack of government help, to the resilience of the people. "We figured, like everybody else 'they're getting it together.' Well, they're not getting it together."
"But the spirit of the people is obvious," said Blackmon. "They were friendly, and they loved us even more when we explained what we were doing. Despite everything, people still had the whole spirit of Southern hospitality."
What started as a trip to satisfy Barrett-Gaines' curiosity, has grown into an organization called the New Orleans Education Project. "We have three missions: to physically help in New Orleans, to educate ourselves on what's going on in New Orleans and to educate others about New Orleans."
To help educate others, Barrett-Gaines has chosen New Orleans as the theme for the sixth annual UMES Black History Symposium on Feb 21. The day-long program will feature the music, history and culture of New Orleans. "It's not just about Katrina," she said of the symposium. "It's a broad education on the culture of New Orleans. I want to be part of making sure that this generation doesn't spend its life thinking New Orleans was some kind of accident, but to understand that it is this 500-year-old phenomenon full of things you never would believe unless you went down there."
Barrett-Gaines will lead another trip to New Orleans in May, and she is looking for volunteers. "We have to go back. And we're going to keep going back again and again and again. I really do believe that's the only way to understand what's going on there."