As the sun set over New Orleans, a corner of Bourbon Street was occupied by a peculiar looking group of teenagers decked out in teal shirts chanting, swaying and jumping with green glow sticks clasped in their hands. They came from different grades, friend groups, and schools but came together with one purpose in mind: help rebuild New Orleans from the devastation that Hurricane Katrina left in its wake over a decade ago which is still impacting the city today.

Under the leadership of a program called Shirts Across America which was founded after Hurricane Katrina hit, students from schools affiliated with the program travel down to New Orleans for a week during various times of the year to build houses. The program was started by Randy Novak along with several friends who gave $500 each to six high school students to see how much they could fundraise from that initial investment in 60 days. A couple of the students had the idea to sell shirts on their school campus and $3,000 became $19,000. A sum which far exceeded their expectations.

With that, Shirts Across America was born. Since 2007, when the program started, 148 houses have been worked on and over 2,000 volunteers have come down. 100 schools are on the waitlist to join the program and several other cities are requesting to join and have SAA come support them.

“So much has to be done in New Orleans, I’m not saying that’s not going to change, but we need to stay focused on New Orleans so that the people there don’t feel as though they’ve been blown off again,” said Randy Novak. Shirts Across America is interested in possibly expanding in the future but want to make sure that it can be done in a way that stays true to why the program was started in the first place: to help the people and city of New Orleans recover from Hurricane Katrina. Before moving onto other places they want to finish what they started in New Orleans regardless of how much time it takes and just because a decade has passed doesn’t mean that they are showing any signs of stopping. If anything, SAA has grown in their efforts to help and New Orleans remains their priority. “We want to make sure that we’re supporting the people of New Orleans and of the gulf coast and that our program is at the highest level for the participants,” said Novak.

Lily Evans helps construct a wall

The trip this summer was primarily Roosevelt students in addition to some students from Bellarmine Preparatory, Holy Names and Seattle Preparatory schools. It was one of many trips that SAA facilitates throughout the year in order to rebuild New Orleans in a way that educates and expands the minds of participants. A big part of the program, aside from the house building, was enabling students to feel comfortable having a dialogue about serious things without the reservations that seem to prevent such discussions from occurring in regular day-to-day life.

Students visited the Whitney Plantation as part of their education about the area and it’s history. In the car ride back to St.Jude’s from the plantation students reflected and debated some prompt questions that segwayed into a more in-depth examination of who they were and the way that they led their lives. “Why do people stay silent when others are being devalued,” posed one of the questions. Another read: “If you were a child whose parents were sold and you were left on the plantation what do you think you would be thinking?” The framework that these questions and several others laid out provided a space where the volunteers could take the time to contemplate their own life choices in regard to what they had just witnessed and learned about. The questions effectively opened up a platform to learn about each others lives.

Three years ago when SAA first partnered with Roosevelt six students went. The second year that number doubled and this year it was up into the thirties. Within Roosevelt, the program has quickly gained traction as students see how much their fellow classmates enjoy the experience. An incoming senior Josh Williams said “I signed up because it was crazy for me to imagine being without a home since I was 7. Visiting NOLA made me realize there are places in our own country that need help.” Similar to the way the 6 students were able to fundraise so much in that first year, each group that goes to New Orleans comes back empowered with the realization of how much potential they have to impact the world.  Lily Evans, a core leader for the trip said, “everyone becomes humbled by the fact that they are helping people who have lost everything.”

from left to right, Ruben Appel, Nathan Suedel, Finn Calvert and Michael Scott work together to measure and cut boards for the houses.

With reflections every couple of days, students regularly were able to take a step back in order to truly see and absorb what they were doing. The large group of Roosevelt students was divided up into pods of roughly 6 students each, one of them being the core leader.

The core leaders led group activities, chants, and discussions. They were passionate both about the program and New Orleans. Most of the core team leaders were returning participants. Evans said, “Being down there made me think a lot about how privileged I am especially in terms of where I get to live and where I get to go to school. It made me want to help more and do all that I could to support the people of New Orleans.”

Students stayed at St.Jude’s community center for one week and ate most of their meals there. During the day they worked at the site from 8:30am until 4pm with a lunch around noon.  “Staying in St.Judes is a really humbling experience because community centers were popular places for people to stay after Hurricane Katrina,” said Evans.

The evenings were filled other activities meant to enrich the experience for the volunteers and also introduce them to the incredible city of New Orleans. It seemed each person who went on the trip left with a newfound appreciation for the city as well as with a more open and curious mind. Antoine’s, a restaurant in the French Quarter generously hosts a buffet dinner in the style of traditional New Orleans meals specially prepared each time SAA students come. From the hospitality of St.Jude’s to the warm welcome of Antoine’s, New Orleans seemed to beckon all volunteers with open arms and in turn they left smiling; loaded with new knowledge, experience and a fresh curious outlook on life.

Featured Image: A group of students from Roosevelt, Holy Names and Seattle Prep pose in New Orleans after working on building houses. Photo by: Mike Teehee/Courtesy of Shirts Across America

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