In what has become an annual tradition, a group of spirited and generous Juilliard students headed south on March 1 for a spring break of a different sort: participating in the efforts of Hands On New Orleans to rebuild the parts of the city ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. This year’s team from Juilliard was organized by dance student Lucie Baker (under the aegis of the student-run organization ARTreach) and accompanied by three administrators: Sabrina Tanbara, director of student affairs; Patrick Posey, director of orchestral activities and planning; and Luke Rinderknecht, chamber music manager. The 21 students who participated were music students Kris Bowers, Andi Hemmenway, Alli Job, Kenneth Oshodi, and Dwayne Washington; dance students Chelsea Ainsworth, Stephanie Amurao, Collin Baja, Lucie Baker, Nathan Madden, Rachelle Rafailedes, Sarah Roberts, and Tim Ward; and drama students Francisco Alvarez, Jorge Chacon, Christina Moore, Dion Mucciacito, Alejandro Rodriguez, Shayna Small, Leah Walsh, and Finn Wittrock. Excerpts from Finn’s diary, shared here, provide a glimpse into the many challenges and rewards of the trip.
The 11th-Floor Lounge in the residence hall is not very conducive to restful sleep, but we get a few hours and awaken at 6 a.m. Last night, we had a slumber party there and watched When the Levees Broke, Spike Lee’s documentary on Katrina. A reverberant prologue for the trip. Our flight goes smoothly and we arrive in New Orleans in the early afternoon. Sabrina and Patrick get the vans and we drive to the Hands On facility. There are a few other schools here as well, and volunteers from all over the country. Some have been volunteering for months. We eat some amazing Cajun food and wander down Magazine Street, gazing in awe at the endearing architecture. We have this weekend to really explore and have fun in the city before the work begins.
We journey to First Methodist Church, where last year’s group stayed. We attend a very moving and inspirational service, full of singing and the sonorous voice of Reverend Lance. Towards the end of the service, the reverend calls attention to us (we are rather conspicuous in our bright yellow shirts) and thanks us for being here. I am not the only person there who follows no particular religion, yet we all feel welcomed and moved. We have lunch in the French Quarter. I eat a shrimp sandwich. This is classic New Orleans; the houses seem to have walked out of a painting, and there is an ease to everyone’s energy. There is no hint of depravity here; the uninformed visitor would assume the whole city to be this fun-loving, pretty, and prosperous.
But it isn’t. We drive straight from Decatur Street to the Ninth Ward, and find ourselves in a neighborhood of desolation. Ravaged houses sit next to brand-new ones. Some houses are nothing but rubble; some are nearly empty lots, with only a stoop and an address out front. A husky dog greets us and follows us through the wreckage. Jorge falls in love with it. We take some pictures by the levee, which is apparently the exact same model as those that broke down during the storm. Most of all, one notices the silence. A few people sit outside half-finished homes, an occasional car crawls by, but the air is filled with an unnatural quiet. Even our group, most distinguished by its vocal exuberance, has very little to say.
Our first full day of work—and was it ever! Hands On has several projects going on around the city. After breakfast our group splits up; 10 go to the library to assist with a math class and I go with the other 14 to the local animal shelter, a branch of Animal Rescue New Orleans (ARNO). We clean cages, walk dogs, and chill out with cats.
Then we drive to the Y.M.C.A. and meet the students we will be teaching. We have students from ages 6 to 18. Keeping order is exhausting, but playing with them is exhilarating. The girls are in love with Dwayne and Kris. At night, there is a true Louisiana storm, which is fun.
Very tiring day. We plant trees in the morning at a school. The drama team leaves early to teach at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), an arts high school. The eight of us pick some highlights from our Juilliard training and teach a two-hour workshop with the high school drama students. They are wonderful: outgoing, respectful, hard-working. My fellow teachers are a true delight and an inspiration to work with. The students at the Y are wilder today; maybe they are trying to test us.
No time to write yesterday! We picked oranges, grapefruits, satsumas (like tangerines), and kumquats (like nothing else) for a food bank yesterday morning at a small orchard outside New Orleans. Our students at the Y were really with us; I wish we had more time with them.
Today we experience the darker sides of the New Orleans school system. One group of us tutors fourth-graders for their big LEAP test (for the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program, part of the No Child Left Behind initiative, whereby schools are graded) and we spend an hour correcting spelling mistakes on the worksheets the students were given. There are virtually no writing implements in the classroom. We leave a little depressed. I realize how much help the schools need, and how much help Hands On could use with organization.
We are all tired at night, but go to hear Tim’s friend sing at a jazz club. I’m very thankful that we do. Kris gets up and plays with the group, and dancers improvise in front. It feels empowering to be a part of a group with so much talent and heart. What Dwayne said earlier seems true: our group is a light. We brighten what we touch.
We end up performing four shows today. At the Y, we have more than 300 kids from the Singleton School. Then we do a much smaller show at the church, during which some of the older students present some of the work they had done with their group. We were all amazed at their openness, and proud of their teachers. Two girls did a silly skit with Dion (no small feat, being silly in front of people), a few others sang, and a few read poems. The amount of creativity hiding inside each of them is astonishing. It makes me want to be here for another month. At night, we do a show for the Hands On volunteers, then an encore performance. Each show is different; there are a few standard pieces, but our group is so prolific in their talents that it’s not hard to put together several different variety shows.
I am so thankful to have worked with this group of people and to have had this opportunity to share myself with the amazing city of New Orleans. I truly fell in love with the city, which made the hours of manual labor and pedagogy completely heartfelt. There is much more to do there, and I encourage anyone with a creative heart and any desire to be inspired to go. Go and give of yourself, and you will be welcomed.