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November 28, 2008

Voluntourism: Building for Katrina Victims


Voluntourism--taking a vacation that includes some charity work--is a travel idea whose time has come. In our May 2008 issue, Condé Nast Traveler held the World Savers Contest, asking readers to report on their good deeds with an essay and photo documenting a recent voluntourism trip. A few weeks ago, we posted Beverly Orthwein's winning entry. This week, another one of our favorite contest entries.

by Tom Balliet

It probably all started with my parents' involvement with cub scout and brownie troops, conservation groups, and a swim program for local disabled adults.

My chosen profession as an educator and time spent volunteering at several local agencies and service organizations could have been enough to satisfy my lifelong desire to help make the world a better place. But they weren't.

Since retiring a couple years ago, I have worked with a general contractor-friend on remodeling projects, honing my carpentry skills. This led to a trip to New Orleans to help my pastor in Katrina Relief efforts. I had the time, usable talents, a wish to improve the world, and, yes, an interest in walking down Bourbon Street again.

What an eye opener.

We paid our own way, purchased and donated materials, slept on air mattresses in a church basement, and used an enclosed outdoor shower. Spartan, but better than camping. I have been there for four weeks over the past two years. We have put up drywall and doorways, built closets and shelving, ripped out rotted sub floors, put in new  hardwood floors, hung windows, installed cabinets and moldings, connected sinks and toilets, insulated, put up soffits and fascia, mudded and sanded and painted. It is dirty, dusty, tiring, frustrating--and highly rewarding.

A range of emotions continue to pour over me as I visit, work, tour, and reflect. Every homeowner sheds tears of joy and frustration when we leave. Joy because they are one step closerto moving back into their homes after almost three years of living with friends and relatives, in trailers and with possessions in boxes. Frustration because it has taken three years, because insurance and government regulations so restrict what they can do, because honest and available contractors and competent workmen and agency employees are so hard to find, and because it is depressing to live through the slow and labored process of planning, budgeting, inspecting, and rebuilding when so much more needs to be done.

You wonder if you would rebuild if your house was under water for weeks. You wonder about the city. The French Quarter is lively again--most of the population is back, and lots of houses and businesses have been rehabilitated--but square miles of the city houses and businesses are still abandoned and gutted and waiting in limbo for a future with the possibility of another levy break.

I leave knowing I am but a drop of water in the small river of helpers; I am a small part of the solution. I leave reflecting on the petty frustrations we whine about. I leave knowing that, unlike the owners of the homes I have worked on, I live in my home, with closets, electricity, and running water. I leave wondering why, three years after the flood, 250,000 people of this American city can't do the same. I will be back.

Further reading:
* Make a Difference: Resources for caring travelers
* 2008 World Savers Awards


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