Published May/June 2007

“Voluntourists” are helping to clean up and rebuild hurricane-ravaged communities throughout southern Louisiana and Mississippi.
By Michael Ream

The party may have come back to New Orleans’ French Quarter, but there’s still plenty of work to be done in the city. Almost two years after the one-two punch of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Superdome looks as good as new, jazz resonates from clubs and street corners throughout the French Quarter and cruise ships have returned to the city’s waterfront. Yet underneath these examples of a rebounding city are signs of urgently needed repairs–projects to help an untold number of residents who lost everything and continue to struggle for funds to rebuild their home and lives.

In the wake of red tape, volunteers–including families with children–come to the New Orleans area from around the country to do a good chunk of the work necessary to get these communities up and running. What do they find upon arrival?

They see a city population that has barely climbed above 200,000, compared to a pre-hurricane count of around 480,000. They see many restaurants and hotels open with limited hours because of workers who left and have yet to return. From tourist areas that still show signs of hurricane damage to the ghostly streets of the Ninth Ward, New Orleans needs a massive influx of helping hands.

And these signs seen in New Orleans also are found in smaller communities throughout southern Mississippi and Louisiana.

“Would you believe they’re still gutting houses?” said Janice Jones of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau in Gulfport. “If it weren’t for the volunteers, we would not be so far along in our recovery.” More than 500,000 volunteers have come to Mississippi, said Jones, and more are needed.

“We have some groups making their sixth, seventh or eighth trip here,” Jones said, adding that many volunteers have come with church groups or to join projects overseen by Habitat for Humanity and other national volunteer organizations.

In the Lake Charles area in southwest Louisiana, just 35 miles from the Texas border on Interstate 10, the winds of Hurricane Rita were perhaps more powerful and destructive than those of Katrina, and volunteers have faced the additional challenge of rebuilding in a remote area with fewer resources. The area still desperately needs volunteers, said Julie Burleigh, volunteer coordinator for the area, where volunteers have already demolished hundreds of severely damaged homes.

Doing the grunt work

It’s at the street level that the sheer scale of rebuilding hurricane-ravaged areas becomes most visible. On a sunny weekend in November, more than 100 local and out-of-town volunteers helped clear brush and performed general cleanup at City Park in New Orleans. Ninety percent of the park was flooded, and City Park’s Director of Development John Hopper was down to 30 employees from 260 prior to Katrina.

Thousands of volunteers have helped pick up the pieces at the 1,300-acre park, with many coming on “Super Saturdays” that Hopper has organized once a month.

“I just jumped on board,” said Kelly Gudeth as she yanked up weeds. Gudeth, 35, came to New Orleans from Detroit to volunteer with her friends Andy Coco, 36, and Tim Halpin, 47, both of St. Louis. Coco and Halpin are longtime visitors to the city’s annual jazz festival, and all three hoped to check out as much live music as possible when they weren’t volunteering.

“We’re going to do some of the tourist stuff and then volunteer as well,” said Gudeth.

A new trend in travel

Although they might not call themselves “voluntourists,” the three friends are a perfect example of this emerging trend in travel.

Largely associated in the past with the Peace Corps and other international organizations, volunteer tourism has become highly visible in the United States in the wake of the damage wrought by the Gulf Coast hurricanes in August and September 2005.

“People don’t want to just write a check,” said David Clemmons, director of VolunTourism, in Chula Vista, Calif., which coordinates volunteer tourism trips. “They want to give, but they also want to serve.”

According to a survey taken last year by the Travel Industry Association and Synovate, one quarter of travelers said they were interested in taking a volunteer or service-based vacation and more than half said they were interested in taking an educational trip where they could learn something.

These tourists often gain a greater amount of knowledge about a place they visit, largely through living with or meeting local residents. They also feel the satisfaction of helping people in need.

On the front lines

In Louisiana and Mississippi, volunteers of all ages have performed tasks ranging from cleaning debris to gutting houses to planting trees.

“We could have a thousand (volunteer) groups come in for the next 10 years and we’d still need help,” said Lea Sinclair, communications director for the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation.

Volunteers Sharon Torregrosa and Vickie Quenelle were getting ready to remove debris from damaged houses during their trip to the city several months ago.

“Before, we were putting porches and steps on and learning how to cut wood,” said Quenelle, 59, of San Jose, Calif., as she stood in early November just outside Musicians’ Village, a development of brightly painted new homes in the Ninth Ward organized by New Orleans musicians and built largely by volunteers with Habitat for Humanity.

“I wanted to do work that is meaningful,” said Torregrosa, 49, of Trenton, Mich. “I wanted to spend Thanksgiving with people who had something to be thankful for.”

Buses arranged by Habitat brought the women to their volunteer sites, and both lived while in New Orleans at Camp Hope, a converted school set up for volunteer housing in St. Bernard Parish, another area with significant hurricane damage, where volunteers ranged in age from late teens to early 60s.

Many Mississippi volunteers have also stayed in temporary accommodations set up specifically for volunteers, said Jones. Caitlin Laughlin, 18, of Logan, Utah, came to Mississippi to volunteer straight after she graduated high school in 2006.

“I didn’t want to go right into college,” said Laughlin, echoing a sentiment common among many younger volunteers. Following a two-week training course sponsored by Americorps, the federal government’s national service program, she found herself thrown into some of the worst-hit areas of the Gulf Coast, living in a tent city and working on rebuilding projects, including constructing a school playground.

Volunteers in the Lake Charles area have also stayed in designated volunteer housing, said Burleigh, including in the homes of local residents.

“The locals say ‘We never could have done this by ourselves,’ ” said Burleigh. “The look on their faces makes it worth it.”

No doubt many volunteers feel it is worth it as well.

Michael Ream is a contributor from Clarksville, Ark.

Above: A volunteer removing nails from a south Mississippi roof in preparation for new shingles. Chris de Veer/Hands On Gulf Coast photo

Below: New homes built by volunteers working with Habitat for Humanity in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans in a development called the Musicians’ Village. Michael Ream photo

Before You Go
Numerous volunteer projects are underway in various parts of southern Louisiana and Mississippi, and new ones start up fairly frequently. Make sure you talk to someone in charge at a volunteer organization so you can find out on what sort of project you’ll be volunteering.

In addition, make sure you finalize housing arrangements and transportation to and from the volunteering site before you arrive.

For an overview of volunteer opportunities, call (866) 286-3835 or visit www.volunteerlouisiana.gov, an official state-sponsored site, which contains listings for numerous volunteer organizations in Louisiana and other states, including links to organizations in New Orleans and Lake Charles.

You can find out about Habitat for Humanity projects in New Orleans at www.habitat-nola.org online, which includes an online registration form, or call (504) 861-2077.

For volunteer opportunities in Mississippi, contact Hands On Gulf Coast at (228) 257-6094 or visit online at www.handsongulfcoast.org.

For tourist information about Louisiana and Mississippi, visit www.louisianatravel.com online and www.visitmississippi.org respectively.

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