“Got Mission?" These are the words that adorn the mugs awarded to members of the Mount community who are caught living out the College’s mission by their peers. As a member of the Mission Committee I would say “yes, of course I have mission,” but last May that I had the chance to live the mission in a new way. That was when I joined 11 of my Mount colleagues on a service trip to New Orleans, La., just two days after commencement 2012.
Though we work in different departments, have different lifestyles and live in different areas of the Tri-state, the 12 of us were all in that van for the same reason: to give back to those who are in need in the city of New Orleans. This was a special group as we were the first staff members to use the Mission Leave policy. Enacted in the fall of 2011, the policy allows staff members the opportunity to have up to three days of paid leave to perform service work
Our lodging was at the House of Charity in New Orleans, a lovely two-story house in an integrated neighborhood. Our hostesses – three women religious – welcomed us with open arms when we arrived late on Monday night. The house was established with the sole purpose of providing food and shelter for those who perform service in the area. The three women who operate the House are Sister Monica Gundler, a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati and former campus minister at the Mount; Sister Renee Rose, a Daughter of Charity from Michigan, and Sister Claire Regan, a Sister of Charity of New York – all committed to helping those performing service in their city. They also had a visitor from Canada, Sister Ann Woodford, who was on a service sabbatical and joined our group.
The devastation that still exists in New Orleans is unbelievable. Nearly seven years after Hurricane Katrina, people are still displaced, houses are in disrepair and families are scattered. It’s a city of many emotions. The spirits in New Orleans are high, especially on the streets in the French Quarter. Beads hang from the limbs of trees on the streets, remnants of Mardi Gras.
After sharing coffee and beignets one morning, we visited the Hurricane Katarina Museum. Of the exhibit Peggy Minnich says, “I (we) experienced a deep dark sorrow, miles of horrific destruction and overwhelming helplessness. Yet the spirit of light and life powered through, and the best of mankind slowly returned to rebuild. A common bond was shared by residences and volunteers to bring back and celebrate the rich culture of New Orleans.”
We were assigned to a house that had been completely gutted. It belongs to the Washingtons, a family of four displaced by Katrina. The father and son have been plagued with health problems the last few years and have not been able to return to the city they call “home.” At the worksite we met our two young supervisors, Alex and Megan Madden (a 2011 Mount graduate), employed by the Saint Bernard Project (SBP). Their energy and enthusiasm was contagious – I was in awe of their devotion to a place neither had ever lived.
SBP was the brainchild of Zack Rosenburg, a young businessman who wanted to help the people of New Orleans rebuild their lives. He hires young people who volunteer their time through AmeriCorps. There are currently 130 families are on the waiting list, and he receives 10 calls a week from families who cannot rebuild their homes without help.
After some brief (and I mean brief) training, we delved into our work. We measured, cut and hung drywall and fire rock (heavier and thicker than drywall) on the walls and ceilings of the house. The work was invigorating, and far different than what the most of us do in our positions at the Mount every day. Everyone put aside their titles and positions to collaborate and work together for the good of a family who we may never meet. Each day the work we did helped bring the Washington’s house closer to completion and that inspired us to keep on going. The harder we worked, the happier it made us.
Mornings began early with breakfast and prayer in the on-site chapel, where we learned more about St. Elizabeth Seton, St. Vincent dePaul and St. Louise de Marillac. In the evenings we reflected on the day –the people we met, the work we accomplished, how we were helping to change the lives of others.
This reflection by Kathy Owens, secretary, Division of Arts and Humanities, speaks volumes. “My soul was immersed in the culture, despair and triumph of the people of New Orleans and in the love of the Sisters of the House of Charity. It is this immersion which has opened my heart from darkness to light that I am most grateful. And sharing it with my fellow Mount employees is a true gift that will hold a special place inside me today and always.”
On our last day in the city, we visited the Rebuild Center, a day shelter where the homeless can have a meal, wash their clothes, obtain medical care and identification cards, or just have a safe place to rest for a while. Janet Baltzersen says, “Not only do they provide services that help homeless people with the practical ways to get back on their feet, but the Center is a visually beautiful structure. People were offered books to read in a plant filled outdoor seating area, and local jazz bands visit to play music sometimes. They all had such sad personal stories, but at least they have a peaceful place to go where they are treated with dignity and respect, and truly cared about.”
As we departed for home on Saturday morning, I was filled with an unexpected sadness that our journey had come to an end. We all left exhausted, but so enriched knowing we had made a difference in the lives of one family – food for our souls that would last a lifetime.
A special thanks to all who traveled to New Orleans and contributed to this article: Janet Baltzersen, Children’s Center; Sister Nancy Bramlage, mission and ministry; Mary Brigham, admission; Peggy Minnich, admission; Jeff Oelker, buildings and grounds; Kathy Owens, arts and humanities; Patsy Schwaiger, Wellness Center; Peggy Smith, fiscal operations/payroll; Cathy Steinriede, The Learning Center; Andrea Stiles, (formerly) mission and ministry; and Lynn Taber, registrar’s office.