Happy to get their hands dirty

by Michelle Krupa

Standing in her Lakeview home, Gerry Heigle recently surveyed the progress of 13 students from the University of Notre Dame who had spent the previous three days — among the last of their four-week winter break — tearing out moldy Sheetrock, rotting carpet and a zillion rusting nails that bathed in floodwater for two weeks after Hurricane Katrina.

Like thousands of volunteers from across the country, these young people had come to help us climb out of disaster. Most of them never had visited the Crescent City, and their first images of our town were the storm-wrecked mess. They went straight to work.

Through a local Catholic Charities project called Operation Helping Hands, they ended up at Heigle’s home on Woodlawn Place, a quaint side road between Interstate 610 and the Southern railroad line, where they met the 67-year-old lady whose house they would tear to shreds.

Miss Gerry had no flood insurance on the home she owned outright. A week before Katrina hit, she had finished her 33rd and final radiation treatment for breast cancer. The folded American flag on her front porch once had lain across her husband’s casket, and it was not to leave the property. Despite applying three times, Gerry had not yet gotten a FEMA trailer.

Observing the cypress studs these students had excavated from her flood-stained interior, Heigle said the workers were sent straight from the Lord, probably through the intercession of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, whose shrine in the Irish Channel she helps maintain. “These are my angels,” she said, “my Notre Dame angels.”

Predictably, thanksgiving overflowed each time Heigle visited. One morning she brought a king cake; another day, Mardi Gras beads. But perhaps more poignant than Heigle’s gratitude was the thanks these students offered for the chance to help.

After Day 1, Caity Schneeman, a sophomore from St. Paul, Minn., could not ignore her aching back or the tightness in her hands. She described the demanding work, then whispered: “It was just such a privilege.”

On the last morning, when a Catholic Charities employee called to say the students could take off early if they finished Heigle’s house before 4 p.m., sophomore Baker Jones passed along the message. “There’s no more after this one,” said Jones, an Uptown native who organized the trip, “so we can take a little extra time here, do a doubly fine job.”

Several checked out a nearby house with its front door ajar. Unlike Heigle’s place, this shotgun double had not been touched since the flood. They saw the refrigerator on the kitchen floor, the tea kettle still on the stove. They fingered a paramedic’s uniform in a closet and a Superman figurine on the floor.

The students said such intimate details, paired with the overall magnitude of our disaster, would forever affect them in a way TV news coverage could not. They intended to describe these images in South Bend, Ind. “The things I want to talk to my friends about is that the disaster is not over,” Schneeman said.

Indeed, Mike McKenna, a sophomore from Philadelphia, said he did not want to leave. “You feel like, in a sense, that you’re abandoning it,” he said, “even though that’s not your intention.”

A few students said they would return to New Orleans for spring break to tackle another charity job. They also promised to hold fund-raisers for Katrina victims. Schneeman, along with classmate Kathleen Coverick, even rooted through the trash pile in front of Heigle’s house collecting pieces of discarded plaster to turn into frames for a group photo taken on the front stoop.

In giving their time and their perspiration, these young people made a permanent dent in the mountain of labor that will be required to rebuild New Orleans. And they made a massive impact on Heigle, who hopes to renovate and move back home.

But beyond the toil, these students’ perception and awareness, along with their vows to take our story — and even pieces of our debris — back to campus, may be the most powerful effect of their trip to Louisiana. And their thoughts of spending another vacation helping renew this wasteland make them truly exceptional. Surely, the privilege of their visit was entirely ours.

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