ACE and Alternative Breaks 2012 in NOLA

J. Michael Cruz, director of the Dedman College Center for Academic-Community Engagement (ACE), is participating in the Alternative Breaks trip to New Orleans in December. Participants in the trip, which is co-sponsored by ACE and the office of Community Engagement and Leadership, are working with Youth Rebuilding New Orleans. You can follow the group on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SMU.ACE

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Preparing a house for its new owner

At the house on Salcedo

On day 2 we were split between two houses. Three students stayed at the house we worked on yesterday - the house on S. Salcedo Street. These three were helped by two different shifts of NOLA Jesuit HS students; one group of about seven came from morning until lunch, and then another group came from noon until the end of the day.

The eight of us who went to a different house were working on cleaning and make-ready. This house was a duplex where the homeowner will live in one unit while renting the other one out in order to help pay the mortgage.

We primarily cleaned up the rental unit – touching up paint, painting crown moulding, sweeping dust out of cabinets, spackling holes, cleaning construction dust off of virtually every surface, scraping paint from windows, etc. I spent the morning touching up the exterior paint and the afternoon cleaning a bathroom.

The particular house we worked on is at 428 S. Olympia – here are before and after shots. The change is dramatic.

The house on Olympia before; in a photo from Google Maps, so we’re unsure when it was taken.

The house after YRNO’s work

I had a chance to speak to one of the YRNO employees, Mary, who gave us some information on the organization and the person who had signed a purchase agreement for the house that we worked on today. YRNO sells the homes at 80% of appraised value so that the homeowner has 20% equity in the home just by purchasing and moving in. There are some stipulations: They ask that the home be owner-occupied and that the homeowner teach for at least three years. Their goal is to rebuild the city and to encourage persons (teachers) to come back and live in the city. They also aim to help these [primarily] young teachers to become homeowners since the teaching profession does not pay a lot.

J. Michael and Mary

The person who was purchasing the home we worked on today is a young male teacher, buying his first home. Some other people they have sold to include a single teaching mom with a 4-year-old child; a second went to a newly married couple who was purchasing their first home; and another to a single teacher who was at the end of her career. They tried to help her move into a house of her own since she was near retirement. Another house went to a couple – both teachers – who recently had their first child.

YRNO has been buying and rehabilitating homes, primarily for teachers, for only about two years. Initially (in 2005, when they started) they were focused on helping to gut homes that needed it. Then they started mainly helping the elderly and working poor with their homes. Many people were victims of contractor fraud after Katrina. What we’ve been told is that after the hurricane, homeowners were desperate and would hire contractors who insisted on payment up front. One woman lost $47,000 to a contractor who took the money and never did the work. She was forced to live in a homeless shelter. YRNO spent about $10,000 helping rebuild her home.

After Gustav and Ike, YRNO went to different suburbs of New Orleans to help gutting and rebuild there.

The organization aims to hire young people. They work with high school students and college students, ages 16-20. Two of the part-timers we have worked with are Dhvante and Prince. We worked with them yesterday at the S. Salcedo Street house. YRNO hires many young people in the summers through the JobOne program. They try to provide leadership training and job skills.

Mary told me that they’re able to do much of their work at cost. Home Depot is a wonderful partner, donating many of the building materials, so they’re able to do the work and rehab the homes very inexpensively.

Mary said that after Katrina, telephone lines were down and people in New Orleans were forced to come together for rebuilding efforts through online forums. (She also said there were no street signs since they were washed away in the storm. To find one’s way around the city, a person really had to know the neighborhood and know the streets.)

Danny at work

After hurricane Isaac, once again, their efforts went to neighboring towns to help gutting homes that needed it. In Braithwaite, LA, there was flooding because the Army Corps of Engineers stopped building the flood wall that stretched from New Orleans, just before getting to Braithwaite. Today, in this city, Mary reported there are still homes that are mere shells. Homeowners there are afraid to rebuild if the levies are not built, and the insurance companies are hesitant to insure homes in that area with no flood walls.

She mentioned that LaPlace was impacted by Ike. Here the levies will be fixed, and homeowners are interested in rebuilding.

Mary ended our conversation by stating there is no real hope with climate change and global warming. She talked about how traumatic it is to lose one’s home and said that if we don’t do something on a macro level about global warming, then we are merely waiting before experiencing the next weather-related catastrophe.

Our workday ended at 3pm, and we came back to the hostel for showers and naps. Karissa and Monica cooked mac and cheese and hamburgers for our group dinner. After dinner we drove around the city and then did a couple of reflection exercises for about an hour.

Starting with an ice breaker to get everyone engaged, we played a game of picture telephone. For those who have never played, this game involves a group starting the game by writing a sentence (every member in the group does this). Each paper is then passed to the right. The person to receive the paper illustrates the sentence with a drawing and then covers up the sentence, leaving only the drawing revealed. The paper is passed again to the right. The next person writes a sentence interpreting the drawing and covers up the drawing. The paper is passed again and the next person illustrates the sentence with a drawing, etc. The game goes on until people in the group receive their original sentence. At this time the entire page is revealed to discover how the original sentence changed through the various renditions of drawings and sentences.

We then were asked to draw a picture of what we thought about our service – either at the micro level (today’s service) or more generally at the macro level. Drawings were about both what we did today – the two houses we worked on at Olympia and S. Salcedo streets – and about global service and the impact that we can have (one drawing depicted the world with people standing on it, holding hands, to illustrate that we’re all in this together). Pictures also depicted the relationship between affordable housing, teachers, and future generations of school children.

You can also follow ACE on Facebook.

 

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