Santa Clara University

Be the change

By Anna Thorburn, SCU senior from Turlock, Calif.

My memories of New Orleans are unique to say the least. As a college student, remembering a vacation in New Orleans is often half the battle. However, as a member of a hurricane clean-up crew 14 members deep, each memory piled upon the other from dawn to dusk, quite literally.

The substantial part of our time was spent gutting homes. Gutting a home is a fairly straightforward process that goes something like this: take all possessions left in the home (including wedding albums, stoves, an entire seamstress business, socks, toilets, old food, a portrait of Christ, and lots of books) out to the curb to be picked up by a dump truck; tear down all walls mildewed by the floodwater; rip up the flooring; tear down the ceiling and; finally, bleach the inside of the house to complete the process. In short, it can be compared to taking the vital organs such as the heart and brain out of a human, leaving one with only the lifeless skeleton of the person that lived before. It is a disheartening process.

One home we worked on was particularly disheartening. Its wood-paneling interior and carpeted floors teemed with 10-foot-high floodwaters made for an eerily daunting workday from the start. As we nearing the conclusion of the first of the two days it took to gut this home, I made my way outside in an attempt to escape the fiberglass particles from the insulation that were looming in the air. To my surprise, the scene outside did not bring much relief. After working so hard on one home and then walking out the front door and realizing there were neighborhoods full of homes to be gutted, yet there was nobody there to gut them, I realized the situation was far worse then I had even suspected. My mortified state was quickly overshadowed with the arrival of two nuns who were to be the new residents of the home we were working on. They shared about themselves and their experiences related to Hurricane Katrina. I don’t remember either of them ever telling us how disconcerting it was to be living in a FEMA trailer for months or how lonely it was since their friends and family were forced to relocate during the storm. However, I do remember them revealing who was winning in the “Most Unique Pattern of Mold Growth” contest and bragging about their new double-wide vacation home. I couldn’t give a more convincing argument for the most effective medicine—laughter. Their refreshingly optimistic outlook was, and continues to be motivating.

Working side by side with hurricane victims and fellow Santa Clarans, during this time of obvious political disconnect and civil unrest, was an oddly rewarding experience. Somewhere between the initial orientation meeting in Santa Clara and our farewell beignet stop at the famed Café Du Monde, I think we all understood. We understood what made New Orleans special, even beyond the crawfish and beignets. We understood what makes the Santa Clara community so extraordinary. We understood what it really meant to “be the change that you want to see in this world.”