Santa Clara University

Spreading the fire

Journal entries and a reflection about the New Orleans immersion by Erin Burns, senior combined sciences major from St. Louis, Missouri

January 2

Conversation with Byron, man in the airport: I explained how I was down here to gut the houses of elderly and impoverished victims. He said he thought that was so great and “you guys are like angels.” He said, “you don’t even know. There are people here who aren’t doing anything. But for you guys to come from another state just to help these people out, you’re like angels.”

Heard during orientation: If there were 100 groups our size, it would take more than 3 years to finish the work.

January 3

Going at the bathroom tile with a sledgehammer. Her daughter’s wedding dress hanging over the rusty iron fence blowing in the wind. We filled 2 dump trucks with debris from one house. Thirty years of trash from one storm.

Drove to Ninth Ward: unreal, ghost town, nuclear bomb wasteland, houses on their sides in the middle of the road, cars overturned, broken plates, clothes caught on trees, broken fire hydrant, seashells where grass used to lay, trees split down the center, power lines tilting sideways.

January 4

What are the levees in my life? How will I handle it when it breaks? Will I recover like Veronica? Please give me the strength.

January 6

Can see water line at window level. One house reads, “2 of 5 found, 2 dead”. A lot of construction going on. Most houses are already gutted. Some already rebuilding.

January 7

The destruction is overwhelming. What we accomplished seems so minute, so very little in terms of the large-scale damage. And yet, I feel fulfilled by what we’ve done here, what we’ve said, what we’ve felt, and the lives we’ve touched. Our efforts were genuine and selfless. Our work was kind and inspirational.

I’ve learned how to be grateful for the precious gifts in my life: my family, my friends, my health, my heart. I’ve become a better worker, a better listener, a better citizen, and a better friend.

January 8

I’ll never forget the things I saw here, the people I met, the impact we made.

January 9

Email with Byron, the guy from the airport: He says it’s no coincidence that we were a group of 13 students. There were 12 disciples, and Jesus makes 13. My heart skips a beat as I read this. It would almost be easier to not hear such praise. I know it is good, though, that someone finds our work inspirational. That’s how the fire spreads. In this case, that fire is the love and compassion for people faced with tragedy. I hope more people can be ignited with our same passion and devotion to rebuild New Orleans.

Reflection:

Last night the group gathered to share their final thoughts about this amazing week in New Orleans. This morning I was awakened by the thoughts that were expressed by others and those that remained in my heart. After five days in this city, I feel that this has been the most eye-opening, successful, humbling, and personally challenging immersion experience of my life. I came here not knowing really what to expect. It is 5 months post-Katrina; all I thought was that I’d be witnessing the urgent and hopeful restoration of a devastated city. But what I walked into was nothing that I’d ever known, nothing comfortable, nothing safe and reassuring. Progress is slower than imaginable, you could even say at a standstill. The destruction is overwhelming. What we accomplished seems so minute, so very little in terms of the large-scale damage. And yet, I feel fulfilled by what we’ve done here, what we’ve said, what we’ve felt, the lives we’ve touched. Our efforts were genuine and selfless. Our work was kind and inspirational. My only hope is that this feeling I feel right now, this awesome sense of motivation, inspiration, and love, will remain steady in my heart. I hope I can take what I’ve learned here and become a better person because of it. I’ve been shown how to be resilient in times of utter hopelessness. I’ve seen that I can accomplish things that seem impossible. I’ve learned how to be grateful for the precious gifts in my life: my family, my friends, my health, my heart. I’ve become a better worker, a better listener, a better citizen, and a better friend. God sent me on this trip. And I will never forget it.