NEW ORLEANS — After Hurricane Sandy devastated the New Jersey communities surrounding Red Bank Catholic High School last fall, campus minister Charlie Gates called off the school’s annual spring trip to New Orleans.
For the past four years, Gates and Kelly O’Leary, a New Orleans resident and Red Bank class of 2007 alum, have brought a group of seniors from the East Coast to New Orleans to volunteer.
But Gates said the students wouldn’t let him cancel this year’s trip. First, they told him that they had already made a commitment.
Second, they told Gates they could do both — help their own flooded community as well as continue pitching in toward New Orleans’ recovery.
For their own neighbors, the students held fundraisers and food and clothing drives, while making plans to help in rebuilding efforts as the winter ends.
The New Orleans trip, which took place this week, started when O’Leary, who graduated from Loyola University in 2011, began pestering Gates and his high school to get involved shortly after Hurricane Katrina.
O’Leary’s mother is from New Orleans, and he travelled to the city in October 2005 to help his grandmother, whose home near the 17th Street Canal was flooded, as well as other relatives in Lakeview and Gentilly.
Due to illness, Gates said, he wasn’t able to start bringing students until 2010. The school is very service-oriented and has won national recognition for its work, he said.
Five years after the storm, Gates said, he was expecting the residual work needed to be minimal. The reality, and remaining needs, was “absolutely eye-opening,” he said.
Filling whatever needs they can find, the Red Bank students have helped to rebuild a church in the lower Ninth Ward, dug a hole for a foundation for a Hollygrove house and hung drywall at three Gentilly houses.
This year, they spent one day walking dogs and cleaning kennels at Animal Rescue New Orleans and three days landscaping the yard of a home in eastern New Orleans.
And, of course, there’s always some play scheduled along with the work.
The students went to a crawfish boil, did a French Quarter scavenger hunt, listened to music at Wednesday at the Square, and, despite an unusual cold spell, ate sno-balls.
Taking the trip during Holy Week, the students also attended Mass at St. Louis Cathedral and took time each day for reflection.
The first year, the students stayed at O’Leary’s fraternity. This year, O’Leary is hosting the 13 high school students at the double shotgun house he recently bought — girls on one side, boys on the other.
All the students had to raise money to cover their costs for the trips, Gates said.
He said that he was concerned that people would have already given what they could to local relief efforts, but he said many still pitched in and understood the importance.
“People still remember,” Gates said.
Gates said a big part of this year’s trip is to take lessons they’ve learned over the past four years home to New Jersey.
One of the biggest things he wants to communicate is the importance of the entire county — or parish — working together.
Recovery in the Northeast is largely neighborhood focused, he said, and he believes that more could get done more quickly with a “bigger picture” outlook that incorporates all neighborhoods of all income levels.
Sharing experience can help to minimize recovery time, Gates said.
With close to eight years of recovery work completed in New Orleans, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, Gates said.
When the students return to Red Bank, they will give a presentation about their trip to the juniors — next year’s potential volunteers.
O’Leary said that there were about 90 applicants for this year’s trip.
By bringing back their story, Gates said that they are able to “make people aware that it ain’t over.”
John Malley, whose hometown of Monmouth Beach was wrecked by Sandy, said that he was surprised to see a house in New Orleans untouched and looking as if Katrina happened just weeks ago.
Malley said that Monmouth Beach is like a ghost town. Some people have stayed and rebuilt, but there are numerous “For Sale” signs, and many residents have left and don’t plan on returning, he said.
Carol Wright, whose front yard the Red Bank team spent the week beautifying with a stone pathway, sapling trees, flowering shrubs and bright blossoms, said that the out-of-state willingness to help brought tears to her eyes.
The young people digging and planting in her yard “could be doing other things with their time. But they took the time to be concerned about me,” she said. “The touching thing is that I can tell they are doing it from the heart.”
After returning from Baton Rouge to elevate and rebuild her home following Katrina, Wright said she is still working to rebuild her home-based business making gift baskets and wedding decorations.
Wright said that after surviving cancer, the plants represent more than just a beautiful front yard of which she can be proud. “With what they are doing here, I see life,” Wright said. “Because I came so close to not having my life, I look at nature as living all the time,’’ she said. “When I looked at the barren space that was here, it was the equivalent of death to me. What they are doing is bringing life here.”
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