Driving through the deserted streets of New Orleans, we peered through the windows of our charter bus and watched as we drove past miles of destroyed homes. As we approached our destination, Waveland, Miss., the houses became increasingly tattered and decayed; on some lots, only kitchen floors remained. As we approached the shore and our worksite came into view, the entire bus was silenced by the broad stretches of land where only the scattered debris of homes remained.
We were 100 sophomores and juniors from Milken Community High School who traveled to the Gulf Coast April 2-6 to help rebuild areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina. We were sponsored by Milken's Yozma (initiative) Leadership for Social Action program, which, every year, arranges a project to assist those in need.
Stepping off the bus in Waveland, we were handed shovels and gloves by volunteers for the Gulf Side Assembly of the United Methodist Church. For the next six hours, we submerged ourselves in strenuous physical labor, leaving our sheltered-life inhibitions on the air-conditioned bus. While clearing the site of destruction, we came across pieces of lives left behind. Our eyes lingered on purple Mardi Gras beads crusted with dirt, and dresses hanging on tree limbs. Instead of buildings there were scattered tiles, buried wires and remains of refrigerators and toilet seats.
Cleaning the site at Waveland was our first encounter with the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. In the next few days, we also were exposed to the aftermath of the hurricane in the small cities of Natchez and Utica in Mississippi. In those places, we undertook social action projects to support the Jewish and secular local communities both emotionally and financially.
Some in our group began by going to the local Wal-Mart and filling shopping carts with items requested by a shelter, while keeping within a $45 budget. The money we were spending was taken from the $15,000 Milken students had raised to help the citizens of Natchez, which we had adopted as our sister city.
In our short visit to Wal-Mart, we witnessed a culture drastically unlike our own. Many of the residents were poverty stricken, and we were surprised by their habit of counting every last penny of change. They in turn were surprised by our willingness to contribute our own time and money to help people whom we have never met.
Wal-Mart was not the last place we encountered poverty. On another day, we traveled to residential areas where we worked alongside volunteers of Habitat for Humanity to rebuild damaged homes. Families of at least five lived in houses that resembled shacks. The news became reality; we were finally seeing the destruction we were never able to picture.
Although residents of Natchez were affected by devastation and lack of supplies, they succeeded in maintaining faith and spirit. On a Tuesday night, we joined the AME Zion Chapel for a gospel service. We sang along with the gospel choir with the sense that religion and race were unimportant. We were unified by our past experiences of slavery and struggle. Seeing the grateful congregation inspired us to appreciate our own lives and to hope that soon, all of those affected by the hurricane would recover and restore their rich culture.
We have been repeatedly asked, "Why are you going all the way to Mississippi? If you want to help, why don't you just donate money?"
The answer lies in the power of human connection. Our mere presence in Mississippi gave hope to the community there, which has been ignored by the media and fellow Americans. Money could never replace the relationship formed between Milken and the Natchez community. Not only did we each learn about Southern culture and get to know people there, but we discovered that we have the ability to overcome personal limits and fears. The trip to Mississippi opened our eyes to a culture unlike our own and pushed us out of our comfort zones. In the process we built a friendship with the grateful people of Natchez. It is an experience that will forever stay with us.
Sophia Kamran and Eve Arbel are 10th graders at Milken Community High School.
Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the June issue is May 15; Deadline for the July issue is June 15. Send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.