By By Amanda Oppenheim and Special to the Community Times
Jan 21, 2015 | 9:00 AM
As I was stuffing clothes, shoes, sheets and a pillow into the smallest suitcase I have ever used, all I could think was, "What am I doing? Am I seriously going to spend a week with people I barely know in a place that I have never been to before with rooms full of bunk beds ... and community showers?" It was sometime in the middle of the night and my flight to New Orleans was taking off later that morning. Despite my first service trip jitters, I had never been so excited in my life. After spending the majority of the school year attending meetings, fundraising, helping out at events and fundraising some more, spring break 2014 had finally arrived.
I am a member of Stevenson University's Mission: I'm Home, which consists of a group of students, faculty and staff who travel to New Orleans every spring break to help rebuild from Hurricane Katrina. This past spring break, our groups worked with Habitat for Humanity and the St. Bernard Project to continue assisting with the rebuilding process.
There is still work to be done. So, what did we do? We turned a hole-in-the-wall, abandoned shell of a hardware store into a building that at least had brand new secure walls, nifty original artwork and a strong sense of community. I became a professional cleaner, painter, taste tester — got to love that New Orleans food — drywall putter-upper, and my personal favorite, master of power tools, in just a week's time. Months later, this place is now finished and open to the public as a community center and coffee shop. My palm tree painting hangs right on the coffee shop counter, along with fellow MIHers' brilliant artwork, and the walls that several of us worked to put up can now withstand any storm that heads that way.
I honestly had no idea what I was getting myself into. I just wanted to make some sort of small contribution to the world. Who would have guessed that a few college students, faculty and staff members could make such a huge difference year after year?
While I only get to go to New Orleans one week out of each year, volunteering, to me, is about much more than just giving back to the community; it is about being a part of something bigger than myself and changing peoples' lives for the better, whether I realize it or not. Most importantly, it is about hope. Hope that everything will be OK. Hope that even when bad things happen, such as a devastating hurricane, people will come together and rebuild. I volunteer to give people, including myself, hope. Mission: I'm Home is just one big family. Our family consists of Stevenson students, alumni, faculty and staff, the people of New Orleans who provide us with housing and food, and the amazing men, women and children whose lives we have touched. I went to New Orleans and met over 70 strangers, and I came back to Stevenson with over 70 new friends and family.
Volunteering in New Orleans influenced me to volunteer with the newest service trip, Mission in May, to New Jersey and New York to help rebuild from Hurricane Sandy. My experience in New Orleans and working with Mission: I'm Home has also inspired me to work alongside fellow MIHer, Ashley Koepping, and MIH's brilliant staff adviser, Morgan Somerville, in proposing an international service trip. And, of course, I plan on going to New Orleans every spring break until they tell me that I'm too old or until the city is finally rebuilt and completely back on its feet. Many of us have heard Gandhi's famous saying, "Be the change you wish to see in the world." Well, I'm trying to be, one wall at a time.
On Dec. 26, 2014, the Mission: I'm Home family lost one of its most caring, loving and influential members. Shannon Henretty lit up all of New Orleans with her smiles, dancing and passion to rebuild. Not only did she touch the lives of the Mission: I'm Home family, but our entire New Orleans family, as well. To one of the most inspiring members of the MIH family: Rest in peace, you will forever be missed and remembered. This piece about the amazing work that we all have had the honor to do is dedicated to you.