The First 15 Years of Restoring Post-Katrina

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It’s August of 2020, which marks 15 years since the levees broke during Hurricane Katrina and the founding events for Camp Restore were set in motion. We’ve made an incredible journey of progress over that time. I believe the best is yet to come.

At this point, I think it’s appropriate to reflect on what we’ve accomplished together over the past decade and a half… an effort that began before some of our current volunteers were born. In writing the following, I’ve realized we have a TON of stories and moments to share that can’t be summarized by a single piece. So please consider this a summary of a small portion.

Up to the point when we paused volunteer activities as a Covid-19 precaution in mid-March, nearly 40,000 volunteers have called Camp Restore-New Orleans home, and nearly 20,000 more served at our former sister camp in Mississippi, Camp Biloxi. They are all ages and backgrounds, from all 50 states and over 30 countries.

Celebrating the 25,000th volunteer mark in 2015.

Together we’ve restored hundreds of flood-damaged homes and worked with dozens of fellow New Orleans nonprofits. Tens of thousands of trees have been planted in our wetlands. Rescue animals have been cared for, teachers helped, schools prepared, recycled beads sorted, youth and senior centers supported.

We tackled some big projects, too, restoring four church facilities, including Trinity-Claiborne in the Lower Ninth Ward which is now home to two churches and two nonprofits. We helped restore the St. John Berchman’s Center, a former convent now home to a child-development center.

Camp Restore itself transformed, beginning with an RV park filled with the camper trailers of Laborers for Christ retirees, a bunk-room capacity of 150 and a kitchen trailer where Mrs. Lorraine and her sister Brenda prepared meals. During 2010-2011, we moved all our bunk beds into mobile housing units as we welcomed a charter school onsite while their main facility was worked on. That was one of our busiest seasons ever, so there are plenty of memories about life in the “containers.”

The early days!

In 2013 we built a full commercial kitchen, a huge improvement over the tiny trailer which was just tall enough to stand up in. Then came a facility-wide fire sprinkler system, followed by the miraculous donation of 252 Tempur-pedic mattresses and an expansion of our group dorms. Throughout this time, the Tshirt Room accumulated no less than 300 signed shirts from volunteer groups across the country and beyond. Though the halls today are temporarily empty of volunteers, they are filled with countless memories that would easily make a book.

By 2015, we welcomed the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East senior centers into our organization, through a partnership with the City of New Orleans and the New Orleans Council on Aging. The opportunity to see so many vibrant elder leaders of the New Orleans community on a daily basis, to hear their stories and get to know them, has been a blessing for both staff and volunteers alike.

Senior time is special!

Most recently, Camp Restore alumni were instrumental in the founding of Camp Restore – Detroit, where asset-based community-development efforts are taking bloom, led by Detroiters.

Concurrent to the Detroit developments, in 2015 we embarked on an internship program supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation called “Young Men’s Voices Have Power,” equipping four young men from New Orleans with expert filmmaking instruction which they then used to tell their story by creating a feature documentary. Locally premiering in 2019, their film is on the verge of being released online (stay tuned!).

This brings us up to the present. While there are still a number of homes being restored from hurricane damage, the Katrina era is fortunately now over. Our new construction frontier includes opportunities to assist seniors in home repairs that will keep them safe, secure, and continuing to live independently in their own homes.

Our service partnerships beyond construction also continue to expand, as do opportunities for learning and absorbing the centuries of culture and history that permeate New Orleans (and Detroit).

Both of these cities played key roles in the story of our country to this point. I believe that as we continue to welcome volunteers to Camp Restore, we are privileged to have a front-row seat to the future of our nation.

Seeing such a diverse group of people coming together for a common purpose of service is something I wish everyone could experience. It is inspiring and humbling how creative younger generations (and people of all ages) can be as they seek innovative answers to long-term systemic problems.

We connect this energy with many well-seasoned community leaders who embrace volunteers, lead and focus them over multiple years to transform and bring positive change for all, while sustaining our best traditions. Wisdom and knowledge pass between generations and across the vast range of geography we call home.

This is America, this is humanity – at our best.

I like to think this is what Jesus Christ meant when he said, “love your neighbor as yourself.”

For these reasons I am very much looking forward to our 15th season at Camp Restore New Orleans. They are why I believe our brightest days are still ahead of us as an organization, city, state, nation and world.

We have some rather major bumps in the road at present, but we are making every effort to get through to the other side of Covid-19 in the best shape possible and continue our work restoring faith, home and community together once again.

Looking back at the last 15 years, I know we can do it.

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