Wednesday and Thursday (June 14 & 15) brought our group to the lower 9th ward to a place called Our School at Blair Grocery. A former New York City teacher moved to the area about 10 years ago and purchased a bunch of vacant lots and an old grocery store to start an urban garden as a means of getting kids off the street and giving them something productive to do in the summers, while improving their health at the same time.
When we got there on Wednesday, Turner (the former teacher), showed us around. Some of the students worked with him to sort through the fruit and vegetables for the compost pile. Every day he gets a load of food from a grocery store that they would normally throw out. Some of it has gone bad and goes straight to the compost pile, some of it goes to the goats (if they like it, because goats are surprisingly picky), and the fruit that is still good gets eaten by Turner and the kids in the neighborhood. Sometimes that is all they will eat in a day.
Our job was to watch the goats to make sure they didn’t break out of the fenced in area while they ate the tall grass down and to weed a large plot of land. It was so hot that first day!
After working all morning, Turner took our team on a “Katrina Tour” of the lower 9th ward. We started at the Industrial Canal levee. He showed us right where it broke and showed us the flaws in the rebuilt levee. Hopefully there will never be a storm like Katrina, but the levees that were built afterwards aren’t even as strong as what was there before. As we walked along the levee, Turner showed us gaps between the slabs of concrete where light shone through from the other side – places that would likely give way under pressure if the canal were full of water.
He showed us “Brad Pitt Houses” where Brad Pitt paid to build houses for anyone who was displaced by Katrina in the lower 9th ward and wanted to move back. The problem was some of the eco-friendly products that were used. Apparently someone didn’t do research to see if the homes could withstand the harsh coastal climate, because many of the homes are rotting and falling apart. At first glance they look really cool and modern, and each one is topped with solar panels, but there have been so many problems that people have filed lawsuits against the company that built them.
He showed us a grocery store that was featured on the Ellen DeGeneres Show because the owner said it was the only store in the lower 9th ward and he received $10,000 to go towards his store. It was the most pathetic store I have ever seen. Butter was sold unpackaged as individual sticks. The only refrigerated section was the type of cooler you see full of drinks in the checkout line at Target. There was one divider in the middle, creating one aisle on each side. They sold noodles, but not spaghetti sauce. The bags of flour probably held about 2 cups, and were expensive for the amount.
After we left the “only grocery store in the lower 9th ward,” Turner took us a few blocks away – to ANOTHER grocery store! This one was still small compared to any grocery store I have been to, but it was was about twice the size of the first one we saw and had 3 aisles, a fresh fruit and vegetable section, and a fresh meat counter. It wasn’t a new store either. That store was there the same time the other store received money from the Ellen Show for being the only place to get food in the lower 9th ward.
We ended at the Mississippi River looking at downtown NOLA. Turner shared with us that many of the residents in the lower 9th ward believed that the government blew the levee during Katrina to save the other areas of New Orleans, essentially sacrificing the residents of the lower 9th. It was really sad to hear.
On Wednesday evening, we all got to attend City of Love church. It was loud, loving, and charismatic. People were hugging each other throughout the whole service. We had to repeat things to our neighbors a lot! It was a really fun experience. The church was in the middle of fund raising for building repairs and improvements, and I was so impressed because they were doing all of it debt free! It’s a lesson more churches could learn.
Thursday morning was hot while we worked in the gardens again. We had planned on leaving at 11:30 to go to the beach, so we tried to get a lot done in the short time we had. Before we needed to leave Turner asked me if I could take a couple guys from the neighborhood to the bank to cash a check because he told them he would take them but he needed to stay to delegate tasks with all of the students. I said, “sure!”
Patrick and Devonte were my passengers, and we had some pretty interesting conversations. Patrick spent some of his time trying to convince me to try smoking weed sometime. I told him I had no desire to, and I would never be doing that. He told me about his life and losing his parents at a young age. He told me about growing up in the lower 9th ward, and we talked about Jesus. I waited outside in the van while they went into the bank. I’m not even sure it was a real bank. I never saw a sign. After what seemed like an eternity being parked in a strange, and a little sketchy neighborhood, they came back out. Then Devonte shared his struggle with depression, and I reminded him that his life is worth living. It is crazy the things you can find out about total strangers when you just ask. I’ll probably never see either one of them again, but I’m glad they shared their stories with me.
After we got back to Blair Grocery, the team loaded up and we headed to the beach! We arrived at the Gulf in Mississippi. I have never felt ocean water that was so warm! And it didn’t seem very salty either. We stayed for about 2 hours before heading back to the church for the night.
Our activity for the evening was a little jazz show. Margie brought a guitarist friend and they played and sang for us. She even had some people dress up like they do during Mardi Gras, and we had our own mini Mardi Gras. It was a really cool experience.
After that concert, we had our last large group gathering of the trip with all of the teams that came, and the YouthWorks staff washed all of the leaders’ feet. Then the leaders got to wash the feet of the students that came with them and pray over them. It was such a sweet time with the Lord.