St. Jude group helps in New Orleans
By Seth Gonzales
The Texas Catholic
NEW ORLEANS, La. — Nearly nine years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the home of her aunt and uncle in Slidell, La., Jenni Carmichael returned to New Orleans, a place she calls her second home; and for the second time, she brought a bus full of teen volunteers from St. Jude Catholic Church in Allen.
“There is still work to do here,” said Carmichael, who has served as assistant youth minister for teens at St. Jude for nearly four years. “Our biggest goal for these kids is that they learn to have a servant’s heart and learn the joy of giving back. Then hopefully they’ll continue to serve others as they grow older and one day when they have families they’ll get their families involved and serve as a family.”
Each year, St. Jude’s Life Teen group organizes a mission trip that often ends up taking them out of state. Three years after Katrina hit, Life Teen volunteers descended upon the Crescent City every summer until 2012. That year, the group volunteered to help the residents of Joplin, Mo., a city that one year earlier was torn apart by a massive tornado. Last summer, the teens visited residents of a Native American reservation in Fort Thompson, S.D.. This year, 22 teens and six adult volunteers made the return trip to New Orleans.
High school senior Austin Mishork was with the group during the 2011 trip and said he was impressed with how far the city has come.
“The changes have been massive,” said Mishork, whose brother Alex is a seminarian at Holy Trinity Seminary in Irving. “It’s amazing to see how the community has pulled together and how people from all across America have pulled together, especially teenagers, to come help rebuild this really awesome town.”
Teenagers have indeed been instrumental in the rebuilding of New Orleans. After Katrina, a group of them native to the city decided to do what they could to literally rebuild New Orleans, house by house, block by block. It morphed into an organization called Youth Rebuilding New Orleans and over time, they’ve worked on over 300 projects, including a dozen houses that were purchased, rehabilitated and sold. This year, Carmichael’s group decided to partner with YRNO.
“Volunteers provide a certain spirit, a giving attitude, and a can-do passion for rebuilding New Orleans,” said William Stoudd, executive director of YRNO. “It’s great to have people coming nine years later say, ‘We want to help rebuild New Orleans.’”
Under the guidance of YRNO, some of Carmichael’s team worked on a house barely one mile south of where floodwaters breached the 17th Street levee. Most, though, spent their time painting and refurbishing classrooms on the campus of George Washington Carver Collegiate Academy, a high school serving some of the neediest students in New Orleans.
“When teens come here, they’re not just helping paint a classroom, they’re helping beautify it,” said Kathleen Warner, the school’s operations manager. “What they’re showing to our students who are here is that people care for them even outside their community. “
This year was Caroline Michalewicz’s third mission trip with St. Jude’s Life Teen, but it was the first time her mother Deanna got to tag along as an adult volunteer.
“It’s just amazing to see these teens live out their confirmation, becoming servants in their faith and just putting themselves in a completely different situation,” Deanna said. “It is life changing for anyone who can witness it, but to see it through my daughter is especially meaningful and just an incredible experience. I wouldn’t trade a week’s vacation for this.”
Over the course of her three mission trips, one lesson has stuck out for Caroline: less is sometimes more.
“What’s surprised me the most is how happy the people you help out are, even though they don’t have much,” Caroline said. “Helping them and seeing how happy they are makes you realize how happy you should be because you have a lot more than they do.”
Carmichael said pushing the teens outside their comfort zone is part of the point of any mission trip.
“It gets them thinking more,” Carmichael said. “Taking them to a place and letting them see that nine years later there is still work to be done, letting them meet the people who lived through it, and hear personal stories is always meaningful to them.”
Click here to read stories about other Diocese of Dallas youth mission trips.