Spring break in New Orleans: A chance to serve others


Part of the Tabor College roffing crew: (from left) Janae Rempel, Rachel Unger and Graham Faul.


A photo of the ?dead house,? the newst MDS restoration target.


Janea Rempel staples insulation in a New Orleans home.

The air was warm and muggy. I held the nail gun poised and ready to lay another shingle. The sun shone relentlessly on my back, but the breeze provided a slight relief from the heat. I positioned the shingle, lining it up with the one below before nailing it into place.

I was on spring break. This was my first time to shingle a roof, and my first trip to Louisiana. I went to help rebuild houses in New Orleans.

The destruction brought on by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is still evident. Numerous streets still are silent with only one or two houses bustling with life.

The devastation resembles that from a tornado. Some houses have been completely torn down. Roofs have caved in, windows are broken, boards are rotting, and paint is peeling. Parasitic vines have taken over roofs in entangling, green webs.

Most houses are spray-painted with a large red or black X listing who checked the house and the number of victims found inside. Some brick houses appeared untouched, but the interiors had still been flooded and destroyed by the torrents of water that cascaded through neighborhoods when the levees broke.

The water line visible on the siding of many houses is a lasting reminder of how high the flood waters rose.

Amid all the devastation is a beacon of hope. Mennonite Disaster Service is in New Orleans helping rebuild homes for the vulnerable. I traveled to New Orleans last week with 11 other Tabor College students and one faculty member to volunteer with MDS. Although I had few construction skills, I was willing to learn.

I witnessed varying stages of the rebuilding process during the week. On my first day of work, I was assigned to shingle a roof. For someone who is slightly afraid of heights and last used a power tool more than five years ago, this was a bit of a stretch.

I admit that I never quite mastered the nail gun. Some?times the nails went in perfectly, but more often than not, a nail either remained partially out or I managed to get two stuck in at one time.

Thankfully, the people I worked with had patience as I was forced countless times to go over my work with a hammer.

An ice cream truck came down the street, its jingle making me smile. We all took a break to enjoy the cool refreshment on a humid day. I noticed a lizard sunning itself on a white picket fence. It enlarged its throat, displaying a bubble with a reddish hue.

Progress on the house was coming along nicely. Electricians were working on the inside, and I, along with the other volunteers, finished the roof in a little over a day.

The next day, I was placed at MDS? newest project, the ?dead house.? The entire house had to be gutted and rebuilt. The wood was rotten and wet, and I was careful to step around the gaping holes that dotted the floor.

I swept up piles of soggy insulation and other building materials and carried load after load of debris to the Dumpster.

After the ?dead house,? I worked at an MDS project that was nearing completion. New steps led up to the porch. The flooring had been laid, the walls glistened with fresh paint, and new cabinets graced the walls of the kitchen above granite countertops.

The entire house had been torn down and rebuilt, I was told. My duties included putting in door knobs and door stops and helping install a medicine cabinet.

I could not help but compare this house to the one I had seen the previous day. One was still ravaged and destroyed. The other was a picture of hope.

The last two days, I performed various tasks wherever I was needed. I helped one of the long-term volunteers install an exhaust vent on the second floor of a house. He climbed 30 feet, the ladder wobbling with every step, to cut a hole in the siding. I supplied the tools through the window.

We both were glad when he returned safely to the ground, the project complete. My other jobs included knocking out old siding and putting up insulation.

Throughout the week, I was privileged to meet three of the homeowners on whose houses I worked.

One owner came by to check the progress and told us his great-grandfather had built the house. Broken as it was, the building had sentimental value.

At another house, the owner expressed her appreciation for our work.

The final homeowner I visited with told me her material possessions were temporary and replaceable and she was thankful no lives had been lost. She held her head high, her warm smile radiating joy.

Meeting the homeowners gave meaning to everything I did. This was not just about laying shingles or installing door knobs. It was about helping people and using my hands and feet to show God?s love.

Soon, the week came to an end. I packed my bags and traveled back to Kansas. Although my work in the city is finished, other volunteers will pick up where I left off, continuing to bring hope to the people of New Orleans.


Janae Rempel is earning eacademic credit toward her degree in communication at Tabor College through an independent study at the Free Press this semester. She is from Meade.

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