Catherine Bialkowski, '18, shares her first-hand account of a recent service trip to New Orleans in the story below.
Morristown, N.J. (February 3, 2016) – A week of Southern hospitality can do great things for the soul. During my winter break, I flew to New Orleans, Louisiana along with Alexis Lerner, CSE '18, and Sister Maryanne Tracey of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth, for a week filled with prayer, reflection, and – what intrigued us most – construction work.
In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit the United States, the city of New Orleans was so devastated that still, to this day, people are waiting to go back home. Sister Maryanne, Alexis, and I were part of a team of people from all over the country that spent long hours putting up drywall, drilling in screws, and mudding seams to build a new house for a woman whose home was destroyed. The organization we were a part of, St. Bernard Project (SBP), has rebuilt homes for more than 1,000 families since its founding in 2006.
Once in New Orleans, we were welcomed into the big and beautiful House of Charity, where many SBP workers have stayed over the years. For a week, we lived with both Sisters of Charity and other young women from Texas, New York, Ohio, and Kentucky. After a seven-hour shift at the worksite, it was a blessing to be able to come back to a home-cooked meal and listen to each other's stories around the dinner table.
Before we arrived at the worksite, none of us knew the first thing about construction – but by the end of an hour, we were standing on ladders, goggles and dust masks on, determined to make a difference. Knowing that the walls we were putting up would soon house a woman and her daughter who had been moving around and staying with family and friends for over 10 years, without a place of their own, was our inspiration. It was an incredible feeling to be a part of such a big project, something as big as a place for a family to live.
On our first day of work, the owner of the house stopped by to show her gratitude, and every person at the worksite was overcome with emotion when we witnessed her strength and refusal to give up. Meeting her made the experience more personal, and it became even more important to us to do a good job and finish the house so she and her daughter could once again have a place to call home.
This week certainly changed the way the three of us viewed our own lives. "I came back to New Jersey more grateful for what I had," Alexis said, after seeing the devastation firsthand. We drove through parts of the city that had hardly changed in the 10 years since the hurricane hit. "I wish more of the world knew how much still needs to be done to bring New Orleans back to how it used to be, because people are begging to return home."
Sister Maryanne had a similar reaction, referring to the experience as "an eye-opener." "It was an honor and a joy for me to accompany Alexis and Catherine on this amazing service trip. I think that our lives are forever changed."
As for me, I have learned not to take the life I have for granted. Volunteer work is special in that it benefits not only those who are being serviced, but also those who are doing it. I've been inspired to try and be more selfless, and look forward to helping others more in the future.