Thursday, May 31, 2007

Ahhh. Here I am, back from the swamp. I got back about two weeks ago, and I'm still not sure what to say about it all. I keep telling people the experience was...interesting (and I include the ellipses when I say it.) It's hard to describe my feelings, but here's a partial list: ambivalence, frustration, fascination, worry, disappointment, scary, empowering, and, well...interesting.

I guess I went out there thinking I'd pitch in with a group of happy, jolly volunteers, all of us sweating in the sun to accomplish something good and noble, and that the residents would shower us in tears of thanks. I knew starting out that I expected that, and I also knew it was pretty unrealistic. But I didn't expect what actually happened. It was like when you light the fuse on a powerful firework, expectantly wait for it to blast off in a shower of glorious fury, but it just emits a puff of smoke and a squeal, shudders slightly, and dies.

Although I learned a lot, and more importantly, pushed myself beyond my comfort zone, I can't help feeling that the whole thing was anticlimactic. The lack of organization, communication, and solidarity, in Camp Hope itself as well as with the volunteer group that organized the trip, was striking, and leaves me with serious doubts about the rebuilding effort and its efficacy

My friend and I arrived at the camp, after spending three weeks planning, spending money, and negotiating. There was confusion and stress over what forms to send to whom, last-minute deadlines that spawned several calls a day between us, trying to figure out what we needed to do and when, complex discussions of airplane schedules, ground transportation, and hotels. When we finally arrived, nobody greeted us, and in fact most of the volunteers roaming the halls and the grounds of the camp would barely look us in the eye.We immediately started calling it Camp Unfriendly and Camp Dismal. Silly me: I assumed people who would volunteer like that would also be friendly and happy to see other volunteers!

We arrived a day later than most people on our team, so they were all out at worksites on that first day, or so we thought, as we waited until the end of the workday. We planned to spend that first evening meeting our workmates and getting situated with work assignments and transportation. But most of the group didn't return until MUCH later than the 11:00 pm curfew, and by then we were asleep in our bunks, so we never got to meet any of them that day. Even the next day, there was no communication at all from the leaders of the group, and absolutely no communication about work assignments. I didn't meet one of the leaders well into our first workday, and didn't meet the other one until a couple of days had gone by.

We never did get assignments for our worksites; we just randomly ended up talking to other workers who would volunteer their sites and offer rides. While this was generous of them, when we got to the first site on the first day, we got the distinct impression that there were already too many people working there. There seemed to be about 10 people crawling around in that house. And though we did get some hurried and nonsensical instructions about how to tape and mud drywall, we basically figured it out by guesswork. Then at the second site, there were only five people working, and at the third, there were only about four when we arrived. Who's organizing this fiasco, anyway? The upshot is that I, at least, never knew if I was actually helping or not.

Although we had signed on to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, it turns out there were three organizations involved in the rebuilding efforts: Habitat, Americorps, and The St. Bernard Project, a local group. We ended up working, I believe, on St. Bernard sites, although I'm still not sure about that. The communication was spotty at best and usually nonexistent. We were mules, which I partly expected, but there was no sense of working on the same team. No joy or sense of accomplishment at the end of a workday.

On top of this, I'm still not sure I was helping the people I wanted to be helping, which was displaced poor people with no or little insurance money to rebuild. While I believe this might be the case with the first two houses I worked on (although I'm still not sure), the third owner wasn't even a homeowner when Katrina hit; she had bought her house after the storm. And it had a pool. At least she was at the site when we were working. We never saw any of the other owners at all, although at the second site we did see the owner's strapping young son and his gigantic new-looking black SUV, who came by to check out the work. Excuse me?! Why wasn't he working?? And if the family was so victimized by Katrina, how could he afford such a huge car?

What I had wanted to do was work in the Ninth Ward, where most of the devastation - and grinding poverty even before Katrina - had struck. I ended up working in a largely white working-class suburb for people who, it was my impression, could have afforded to pay contractors. Is my disappointment rooted in some kind of white guilt? (I wanted to help black people, dammit!) It's definitely possible. But shit, I don't have a pool! And the last house I worked on was bigger than mine, and even had a built-in bar!

So, there was little communication or camaraderie, little sense of who we were helping or what their stories were, and little welcome or organization at the camp. I didn't even care about the camp's primitive living conditions: I don't mind living with trickly showers, temperamental toilets, or cranky air conditioners. It's the people and the process that I was there for, and those proved disappointing.

The funny thing is that the other volunteers all seemed to have really gotten something out of their work. Some were even talking about going back. And the kicker was that I just got an e-mail from the coordinator of the volunteer group, thanking us for coming, updating us on the status of the house the larger group worked on (which my friend and I never even saw), and making plans to go back in July. It left me feeling left out and perplexed. Was I at the same camp as everyone else?!

There were good thing, too (I'll write about those next), but in general, I saw a lot of disorganization and miscommunication that made my experience a less than stellar one. I won't be going back, or at least not to that camp. I'm sure there are groups doing good work for the people I'd like to help, but I may just try to concentrate on helping my own community for awhile.

I'm still proud of myself for having the guts to get out there. It was something I've never done before, and now I have more confidence in my ability to negotiate new, unfamiliar, and anxiety-provoking terrain. I'm not sorry I went. I just wish I knew it was worth something.

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