When Happy Johnson (COL ’07) traveled to New Orleans with the American Red Cross last year, he met children who slept on cots without blankets in overcrowded shelters. Johnson carries the memory with him every day, and with help from a few students, he has helped make sleeping a little bit easier for some residents of the Big Easy.
Soon after returning from his trip, Johnson founded Blanket New Orleans, a non-profit organization that provides blankets and other support to survivors of Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the city last summer. The group has received support from hundreds of students and has taken four trips to New Orleans since it was founded in January.
“As I reflected on my service with the American Red Cross, one of the lasting images I remember most is someone’s request for blankets,” Johnson said. “The mere request . was incomprehensible for me, to hear this in America.”
During the organization’s early months, members raised enough money for two trips to New Orleans to deliver over 400 blankets and 100 kits of toothbrushes and toothpaste to families in the city’s ninth ward, one of the most heavily flooded areas in New Orleans. Since then, the group’s efforts have evolved from providing residents with supplies to rebuilding houses destroyed by the hurricane. The group traveled to New Orleans during spring break in March and gutted five mold-infested homes.
During the group’s most recent trip in the first weekend of November, Johnson, along with Sam Buchan (GRD ’08), Sam ink (COL ’08), Stephanie Stokes (COL ’81), and Kayla Towey (SFS ’10), worked to gut an entire residence and make it livable again for its inhabitants, the Bauer family. The Bauers were unable to return to their home after the hurricane because they could not afford the necessary repairs.
The group spent most the weekend working on the house – which sustained substantial damage to its foundation, roof and interior as a result of flooding – by throwing out all furniture, appliances and electronic equipment, and removing all tile panels and mold-infested carpets.
“[The house] hadn’t been touched since Katrina and we literally removed everything in it and stripped it down to its walls over the course of two days,” Buchan said.
Johnson said he was elated knowing that a family would be moving in once their home was cleaned out. “In the case of the Bauer family, our group is grateful for the opportunity to help a family reinvigorate their life,” he said.
The volunteers also visited several neighborhoods in New Orleans’ ninth ward, working to pass out pamphlets promoting discounted building supplies, and alerting residents about a community town hall meeting to protest a government plan to turn part the ninth ward into an industrial park.
Buchan said that New Orleans residents are slowly beginning to return home, but that the rebuilding process still has a long way to go. She estimated that roughly one-fifth of the ninth ward’s original residents had returned home, saying that many houses remain uninhabitable.
Johnson said that he was pleased to see more cars and trucks parked in front of homes in the ninth ward since the last time he visited.
“Witnessing activity on these homes 15 months after Hurricane Katrina is something to rejoice about, but more help is needed,” he said.
Towey, BNO’s service trip coordinator, was amazed by the optimism of the New Orleans homeowners despite the long task of rebuilding ahead of them. “It is very inspiring to hear the hope in the homeowners’ voices,” she said.
Johnson said that due to successful fundraising efforts, BNO will be able to make another trip to the Big Easy during spring break in March. He said that the group has raised over $10,000 so far from online donations and on-campus fundraising efforts, including T-shirt sales.
Buchan said that she hopes the group’s efforts will make more students understand the importance of volunteering their time to improve the city.
“We listen to the stories of the people of New Orleans and witness the current state of the city to be able to go back and tell others and hopefully motivate them to go and volunteer their time,” she said. “The people of the city were so grateful that we were down there. They need people there to continue to rebuild.”
For Towey, the rebuilding effort in New Orleans seems like an enormous task, but when she speaks to individual residents, she knows that her work has made a difference in their lives.
“Sometimes it’s hard to see how . cleaning this one house can make a difference, but then you meet the people of the city and realize how much they need your help and how grateful they are – even if, to you, it doesn’t seem to be significant,” she said.
Johnson prefers to view his volunteer experiences in a more personal way, reflecting on the meaning of rebuilding a house for a family that will once again live there.
“Before I enter a house to be gutted, I always think, this is someone’s home, their livelihood. I mean, this is the thing that many people spend their entire life building,” he said. “I find solace in the notion that we gut houses so that families can rebuild stronger homes.”