A decade’s worth of group-leader secrets, from FEMA trailers and red gravy to self-care and the future of alternative breaks.
Kurt Jostes: So first off, please explain the background story on how you first got into leading alternative breaks.
Morgan Somerville: I’m currently the Director of Student Engagement at Stevenson University outside of Baltimore. I have been coming to New Orleans to help rebuild for 11 years now. It started… a friend of mine that I lived with had an extra spot on a church trip to Chalmette and said, “would you like to come with me?” And I said, “yeah, let me ask my boss if I can get off.” It was two weeks away, someone dropped off, so it was like really random by chance that I could go, and my boss said I could go.
I left and flew down here with the Church of the Brethren. They had an early presence here in New Orleans and also in other disaster areas around the country and also around world.
We stayed in a FEMA trailer in Arabi and worked with a few different people, and at one point during the week I was introduced to the very-very- “baby” St. Bernard Project and was really impressed by them and thought they were doing good things. And after a week here realized just how much need there still was. It was March of 2008, two and a half years after Katrina and I was shocked by what I saw. At that point we were only working in Chalmette and I remember seeing the huge piles of debris in everyone’s front yards, getting picked up.
The reason I found out about going to Rocky and Carlo’s for the first time was the bulldozer guys. I was like, well you guys are locals, where should we go eat? And they’re like, “Oh yeah, go to Rocky and Carlo’s and get the veal parm with red gravy.” And I am not Italian, so I didn’t know what red gravy was, and I thought it was blood sauce. So much to my surprise, when we go and it’s marinara sauce!
Jostes: But it’s not marinara sauce, it’s red gravy!
Somerville: It’s red gravy, right! But I was like all day long: I’m going to go eat veal with blood sauce… hahaha!
It was incredible what I saw, as far as the amount of destruction still, and lack of progress. And not to put any blame on the homeowners, but it just wasn’t progressing. And so I bought in pretty early on to what St Bernard Project was trying to do, and talked to those folks and stayed in touch.
So I went back to campus and I attempted to quit my job, and my boss told me no, which I’m pretty sure my parents called him ahead of time and were like “don’t let Morgan quit her job.” I was crying like the entire plane ride home, cried the entire weekend, cried the entire trip into work. I was like, I just feel called to be there, like, that’s my calling. I need to be in Chalmette, Louisiana and rebuild homes. And I told my boss this and he’s like, “that’s not your calling, you need re-evaluate your calling.” And I was like, “you can’t tell me what my calling is,” (because I was a really mature professional) and my boss, he was like “no, this is not your calling. Go sit and think about yourself and come up with what your calling is.”