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Volunteering in New Orleans

Editor’s Note: Voluntourism is alive and well in the Big Easy, where there are several ways visitors can volunteer in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina destruction. Indeed, some city districts have not fully recovered since the 2005 disaster. In the following poignant guest post, Jessica Spiegel, who visited New Orleans last year, shares details on one organization that answers the question, “How can I volunteer while in New Orleans on vacation?

Driving through a ghost town of boarded-up houses, abandoned supermarkets, and an empty five-story hospital with moldy curtains blowing through broken windows, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t in a war-torn country or touring the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster. The neon lights and karaoke bars of Bourbon Street were light years removed from this scenery – no matter that they were only a few minutes’ drive away.

To most visitors, New Orleans, more than six years after Hurricane Katrina, looks essentially like it did before the storm. In other words, the parts of the city that tourists visit – the French Quarter and Garden District – were relatively unscathed by the water and wind in the first place, so the amount of rebuilding that had to occur was minimal.

Those two New Orleans districts, however, don’t come close to telling the whole Katrina story – just as Bourbon Street doesn’t come close to representing New Orleans.

Vast stretches of the city, formerly bustling neighborhoods, remain unliveable. New Orleans East once supported a population in excess of 90,000 with hospitals, schools, grocery stores, drugstores, restaurants, and churches. Today, roughly half the former residents have returned, but very few businesses have chosen to rebuild. New Orleans East now has only one grocery store, and there are no hospitals in the area. Those who have returned to this part of New Orleans often do so at their own peril, living in buildings that probably should have been torn down for all the mold in the walls. Even if everyone who left the city during and after the flooding wanted to come home, there still isn’t enough infrastructure to support them.

When you get away from the party atmosphere on Bourbon Street, visuals like this can be somewhat bleak – but visitors don’t have to leave feeling helpless, or (even worse) pretend problems don’t exist so they can concentrate on having a good time. Just being an independent traveler in the city is a great start – staying in small family-run hotels rather than big chains, eating in Mom-and-Pop restaurants, booking local tour guides, and simply choosing New Orleans instead of (say) New York for your holiday – but there are active options for the traveler who wants to do more. Volunteer projects abound in New Orleans, and there’s an organization dedicated to helping volunteers find the perfect opportunity to help.

HandsOn New Orleans (part of the nationwide HandsOn Network) connects volunteers with organizations that need people. Since March of 2006, HandsOn New Orleans has worked with more than 32,500 volunteers, directing them to projects run by HandsOn as well as those run by their more than 200 non-profit partners. While most of the volunteers are local, HandsOn New Orleans is ready and eager to work with visiting volunteers who want to help out in some way. They routinely have large volunteer groups from companies, churches, and schools come into New Orleans for a week of service.

“There’s one company that’s been coming here every year,” says HandsOn New Orleans Executive Director, Cathy Puett. “Their employees have to apply to be part of the volunteer trip, and this year they had 1300 applicants for 40 positions.”

HandsOn New Orleans even has its own 40-bed hostel/bunkhouse, complete with dorm-style bunk beds and a common room, that volunteers can stay in for $30/night. Bunkhouse residents get breakfast and lunch provided, says Puett, “But we encourage them to eat out for dinner – there’s just so much good food here.” The only requirement is that they volunteer for most of the time they’re staying in the bunkhouse. Puett says the bunkhouse is booked solid for spring break every year – it’s a very popular time for “voluntourism.”

Most volunteer projects prefer that people dedicate a week to a project, but if you’re only in New Orleans for a long weekend, don’t let that keep you from helping out. HandsOn New Orleans has connected people with day-long projects in the past, and they never let a potential volunteer walk away with no options – so even if you only have a part of a day to give, they want to hear from you. The organization’s website has an online calendar listing all current volunteer opportunities, and if you don’t find what you’re looking for online, call the HandsOn New Orleans office – the staff is happy to help.

Volunteering is an excellent way to give back to a city that has shown you a good time – and even if you’re only able to give a few hours, every little bit helps. HandsOn New Orleans makes volunteering in New Orleans easy by doing the legwork for you. Now all you need to do is show up.

Jessica Spiegel adores New Orleans for reasons she can’t even fully articulate, but which have to do more with the feeling of the city (and the music, oh, god, the music!) than anything. She’s a Portland-based freelance writer and social-media consultant.

Photos courtesy HandsOn New Orleans.

5 Responses to “Volunteering in New Orleans”

  1. 1

    I love New Orleans. The magical, mysterious, haunted town. I’d love an opportunity to go back there with my family and help out. Thanks for your story.

  2. 2
    Jenn Willey says:

    When my kids are bigger, someday I’d like to take them here and be able to help out. Thanks for sharing.

  3. 3
    Jamie says:

    I LOVE THIS POST! Seriously, I applaud you for talking about this. It is amazing how much we forget there are still issues in disaster areas when the cameras leave- it seems like the volunteers leave with them. Keeping it in the spotlight is critical to really help New Orleans rise up. It is our country and we forget sometimes we should have responsibility as a country community to bring back the quality of life. I know I would wish the same if it happened to me.

  4. 4
    Caryn B says:

    I had heard this but am still in shock since it has been so many years. Your post is awesome…thank you for reminding and inspiring us to evoke change

  5. 5

    I haven’t been to NO but it’s definitely on my list!

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