Habitat Site 63, L.A. To NOLA: My Third Visit, RHINO, and Joseph Massenburg

Guest blog post by Patrick Diaz

On the last week of March, I took the Greyhound from Los Angeles to New Orleans; it took a day and seventeen hours to get there. I signed up for four days of volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity New Orleans, at what would be my 63rd Habitat site around the country. It took three transfers to reach New Orleans: at El Paso, Houston, and San Antonio.

The bus, unlike the Amtrak, isn't tethered to a fixed course of rail, and shares the asphalt with ordinary motorists and truck drivers. Over the course of my bus ride, the morbid revelation it offered was the regular appearance of roadside crucifixes, fleeting, anonymous, and lonesome memorials to some road-related tragedy. At one point, I saw a trio of crosses in the distance. As the bus roared past these accents to an accident, only once did I catch a single name on a cross: Jim Martinez.

This trip marked the fifth and sixth times I've crossed the heart of Texas in the past year in my travels to volunteer for Habitat, and between its vibrant cities and ghostly small towns, there are long stretches where it's just road, earth, and sky. With exception to the great people, cities, and culture of Texas that I've encountered, I felt that, once you're outside those oases of civilization, there must be a saying that goes around in those desolate parts: Where there's smoke in Texas...that's it, there's just smoke. Ain't nuthin' else.

This was my third visit to New Orleans since 2010 to volunteer for Habitat. It was just a short early morning walk from the Greyhound Station to the empty streets of the French Quarter, and the beautiful thing about sunrises there is that the St. Louis Cathedral, on the southeastern side of Jackson Square, catches the early morning sun with its tan facade, and serves as a glorious beacon of stone transfigured into light to New Orleans residents. Rising above the streets of the Quarter and topped with its symmetrical trio of spires, the cathedral channels and shapes the blossoming light into a radiant symbol of spirituality.

The hostel on Annunciation Street was a nondescript one-story affair nestled at a street corner among newly built residential streets, not far from the industrial section of town, and a ten minute walk to a Wal-mart. There was a generic newness to the stretch of new apartment complexes, done in bland approximation of French Quarter brick and balcony architecture, that ran along Annunciation Street after the Ponchartrain Expressway. Even a hostel staff member suggested a walk along Magazine Street for a more scenic route.

During the evening, I was introduced by another hostel staff member to a lively group of college students who came down from Binghamton University to volunteer for Habitat; they were led by Jill Shotwell, who was studying environmental health and geography, with a focus on epidemiology. She had already accrued extensive Habitat experience bringing volunteer groups to New Orleans before; in addition, she ran humanitarian trips to Nicaragua to clean water wells and to build houses and schools. She brought her friends down during spring break to build. I suggested that I might join them during the week at their site to work alongside them.


It was a two mile walk from the hostel to the Habitat site on Magnolia Street, off of Claiborne, a major thoroughfare. On the beeline along Felicity Street to Claiborne I came across a memorial patch around a sidewalk post that held an electrical line. A bouquet of dried flowers sat atop a mound of plush dolls and melted candles. A plush doll of a shark had fallen astray from the pile and lay by its lonesome on the curb. I passed houses with signs depicting a forlorn, resigned child and the message, "Stop the shooting. I want to grow up." An abandoned house, gutted out and windowless, had a sign which simply read, "ENOUGH!" The peaceful morning quiet stood in stark contrast to these vivid hallmarks of some recent great tragedy that befell a child.


The Build: A Group of Merely Three

I stood amidst a large gathering of volunteers milling about in the sharp morning cold of my first Habitat day in New Orleans. The site supervisor was Mike, a New Orleans transplant from Massachusetts, who had served for four years with Habitat New Orleans. The crowd of volunteers were two separate groups, one from the University of Tennessee, and the other from Huntington High School, in Long Island, New York. As the Tennessee group went indoors to work and the Huntington group remained outdoors, I became part of a group of merely three: Mark, a regular volunteer, and Tarah Allison, who, I discovered, also came from California to volunteer.

The Habitat home, like the other two I worked on in New Orleans, sat atop a perimeter of cinder block stacks with a row of stacks in the middle, roughly four feet high and spaced four feet apart, to protect the home from floods. Tarah, Mark, and I were to build a deck porch on the left side of the house, which was to be the beginning of a wheelchair ramp that wrapped around the entirety of the house due to code requirements: the ramp could only slope down an inch per foot, which meant that, in order to reach the ground, it had to run sixty feet. That distance was compacted by folding it around the house.

The Huntington High School group was assigned the monumental task of digging holes at regular intervals for the posts around the perimeter of the house which would support the ramp. Mike ran two lines around the house to ensure proper placement of the posts in terms of distance from the house and proper spacing between the posts for the span of the ramp itself. At the base of each post, nails were hammered into each side to serve as "axial armatures". Once the posts were lowered into each hole and established plum, they would pour concrete into the hole; the nails provided more stability for the post as they gripped into the concrete from different axes to more securely hold the post in place.

The hectic activity around three sides of the house, out in the sun, was in stark contrast to the quiet, shaded, narrow alleyway in which Mark, Tarah, and I worked as we built the platform extending from the side entryway. Confirming level, we secured it with temporary braces and installed two joists and blocking in the middle. Ultimately, building this platform became the sole task Tarah and I would work on during our days there.


It was Tarah's first time volunteering for Habitat, and her first time in New Orleans. Like myself, Tarah came

to New Orleans on her own. She was an adjunct professor who taught English composition at two colleges. She was named after a soap opera star. She preferred European literature over American. It was a trip she had planned well in advance, early last year, through a nonprofit group called RHINO, an acronym for Rebuilding Hope In New Orleans (www.scapc.org/RHINO). RHINO had also coordinated the University of Tennessee's volunteer trip for Habitat New Orleans, providing housing for volunteers at the Brent House Hotel adjacent to the Ochsner Medical Center, as well as an extensive dinner buffet of genuine Louisiana cuisine at RHINO's base of operations at St. Charles Presbyterian Church.

During a break in the activity, Tarah and I met a neighbor named Wayne, an elderly gentleman who lived across the street and would come by to observe the building. He wore a baseball cap which bore the famous New Orleans phrase, "Who Dat?" He had been giving the volunteers Mardi Gras beads earlier, and upon discovering us he went back home and returned with two more to give to us. Tarah chose the pearly white beads with the fluffy duck, so I received the gold beads. Afterwards, he'd refer to me as "Los Angeles" and Tarah as "San Diego."

After we completed the framework of the platform, Tarah and I dug holes at each end, eighteen inches deep, in which to install 4X4 posts into the ground that would permanently stabilize that section of the ramp. Once we established plum on two sides of the post, we secured it to the platform with deck screws. We mixed the concrete and poured it into the holes, leaving it to dry overnight. This marked the completion of the first phase of our section of ramp.

At the end of that first day, I joined Tarah and the University of Tennessee group at a home dedication ceremony a short drive away. The family stood on the porch as the father was presented with several gifts--a bouquet of flowers, a large roll of French bread, a Holy Bible, and finally, the set of keys to his new home. Off to the side, his young son would wave intermittently to the crowd.

Tarah invited me to attend the dinner provided by RHINO at St. Charles Presbyterian Church, situated on the beautiful tree-lined street of St. Charles, along the middle of which ran the iconic dark green St. Charles streetcar line, its only sibling being the red Canal Street streetcar, which it met at the French Quarter. The afternoon sun shone warm on quiet streets with sidewalks bursting with trees with far reaching branches, and on dignified but unassuming residential homes with generously sized windows and lawns.

Before dinner, I met Avery Strada, the program manager for RHINO, and would later discover that we had a mutual acquaintance: Rick Richardson, who I met during my second visit to New Orleans in 2011, who volunteered with his church group from Raleigh, NC through RHINO. It was another one of those striking coincidences during my Habitat travels. The RHINO ministry was founded shortly after Hurricane Katrina by St. Charles Presbyterian Church, and partnered with Habitat to build homes in the Musician's Village, Ferry Place, Central City, and the Seventh Ward. They've been a very visible and elegantly executed conduit for out of state travelers to plan their volunteer trip to New Orleans. Since Katrina, RHINO volunteers have built 28 homes with Habitat.

Jim and his wife Bonnie were part of the culinary staff, and Jim, a lifelong New Orleans resident whose family story began in San Diego, curiously spoke with an accent strikingly similar to a Brooklyn one. At the start of the gathering he showed us all how to eat a crawfish: remove the head and pinch the end of the tail to push the meat out. He, Bonnie, and other culinary staff had laid out an extensive salad bar, which included the olive salad that was a key ingredient to New Orleans' trademark muffuletta sandwich; heated trays of Louisiana style rice, beans, sausage, corn bread, and biscuits; and a dessert section with platters of fruit, ice cream, and a box of New Orleans pralines.


Before dinner the next day at St. Charles Presbyterian, after Tarah and I began work at the site on making the actual surface of the deck porch, two girls recited a prayer of thanks that they'd written for the evening meal. The main course was generous slashes of fried catfish and hearty noodle length macaroni and cheese; both dishes were buttery and crispy, and melted on the palate. Tarah and Jason, Avery's husband, debated at length over the meaning of the positioning of horses' legs in statues, and whether it signified the manner of death for the horse or the rider. Jason remained steadfast in his belief that it depicted how the horse died until Tarah looked up the significance on Wikipedia, which took a qualified stance on the issue--depending on the country, it depicted how the rider died. It was a curious and amusing discussion to observe from the sidelines.

Farewells and My Last Day

Thursday marked the last day for Tarah and the Huntington High School group. Two narratives ran alongside each other at that site, that of Tarah's personal adventure coming to New Orleans for Habitat, and that of the Huntington group's collective one. After we cut the deck boards to tightly fit the span of the platform, Tarah secured them on her own to the joists with the deck screws. Opposite to us, the Huntington group completed the task of securing all the posts for the lengthy wheelchair ramp. While Tarah built the first section of the ramp in that shaded alleyway, around the other sides of the house, the Huntington kids continued the ramp's path as they laid the foundational work of posts for a future group to build the ramp on. There was an elegant symmetry to their narrative juxtapositions.

At the end of the day, I stood before the Huntington group to share my personal Habitat story and to ask them to pose for a group photo holding my Hello Habitat GLA sign; they graciously obliged. Led by Rob Gil Gilmor, who has coordinated Habitat groups at Huntington High School for twelve years, I saw the brilliant future of Habitat in those dedicated teenagers and in their swiftness, dedication, and confidence; I saw possibilities of innovation and evolution that they could bring to the Habitat mission. Like myself, Tarah discovered Habitat at a later age, but it was a testament to how Habitat's reach spans generations; after me and her, there were members of the elder class, like Mark and Jim. Tarah said she wanted to be an inspiration to her young daughters by her actions, to be someone that they can be proud of, but I'm absolutely certain that they are proud of her already, and always will be.

Before Tarah's last Habitat day ended, I gave her a marker so she could sign her name and leave a message under the porch she had just built. It was a simple joy to work together, to discuss God, literature, and term paper rubric, to take the short break each day and walk to the nearby McDonald's for a cup of coffee to wake us up and to stay warm. Just two days before, the first thing I had showed her was that, when you plug a power tool to a cord, you tie a single knot between them so you don't accidentally pull the cord out if you stretch it too far. We were going our separate ways now and moving on our respective journeys. It was a Habitat first for her, but for me it was another city in a growing chain of cities I've visited in my Habitat story. A different city with the same short story and the same beginning, middle, and end: move in, minister and meet people, and move on. The end never gets easier.

Under the porch, she left the message, "Enjoy the freedom of mobility."


It was Good Friday. The Habitat group at the hostel was getting ready to leave early that morning for New York and classes; they took the time to pose outside the hostel for a group photo with my Hello Habitat GLA sign. I never did get to work with them, but, like the Huntington High School group, it was another reminder of how the Habitat mission was firmly establishing itself within the hearts of a younger generation. With joy but not without a twinge of envy, I was pleased to see many discover Habitat for Humanity during their college years; it took a long time after college for me to plant, like a seed, Habitat in my heart.

Just a few days before when I arrived in New Orleans, the impression was immediate, upon first meeting Jill, the group leader, of the clarity of her focus on humanitarian work. After meeting so many people on so many paths you learn to see when a passion like serving others is so embedded in someone's heart; they are at ease and at peace with who they are. She later wrote back to me about volunteering for Habitat: "I always enjoy working with Habitat. Every group I have brought down to NOLA with Habitat has learned so much from the experiences we have had, regardless of their background or beliefs. It really is an incredible organization. My whole group would like to thank Habitat for the meaningful and important work that they continue to do every day."


When I returned to the site on Saturday, the Huntington group was gone. Tarah flew back home. It was myself and Mike on site mostly. A regular volunteer named Andy came by to help Mike build the front staircase, cutting the risers and securing them in place; he left, however, at lunchtime. Another regular, Keith, came by just to visit, and Mike, Keith, and I went to a nearby Subway for lunch and conversation. Keith, at 80 years old, had been coming down to New Orleans from Virginia every year since Katrina to volunteer for Habitat. He'd come during the winter months when he couldn't farm, and would stay for at least a month. In 2007, he stayed for five; this year, he'd been staying for six.

When we returned to the site, we heard a short, fiery burst of trumpets in the distance. There was a church nearby, and Keith speculated whether a jazz funeral was taking place. No further sounds followed suit, however. Mike mentioned that early that morning he had seen a hearse and procession of cars drive past.

Soon, Keith too left; it was a brief but poignant acquaintanceship before another farewell. I made sure to photograph Andy and Keith each holding my Hello Habitat GLA sign.

I finished the remainder of the deck porch, and went to help Mike pour concrete onto the base of the two posts on each side of the front steps. After I left, others would come to pick up where I'd left off; that was the cyclical nature of a Habitat build.

It was only a mile to the Superdome and the Greyhound station nearby, but Mike drove me there before heading off to another site. It was a quiet drive, and the day overall progressed like a gradual fade to silence. In a few months, he'd be leaving Habitat to go to law school; where, he didn't know yet. After days of boisterous, lively, and vibrant conversations with so many people, on site and at the hostel, with only a few hours of rest between days, it was a day spent mostly alone and in silence. I bid farewell to Mike and headed into the station.


Epilogue: Accents to a Tragedy

"Patrick Diaz, a regular HFH GLA volunteer, recently traveled to New Orleans to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity New Orleans. Shortly after his trip, 18 year old first time AmeriCorps member Joseph Massenburg was gunned down in New Orleans. Below is a small note he wanted to share about that tragedy:

Joseph Massenburg died serving others. The heart with which he went out into a dangerous world to help those in need, a heart full of love and compassion, will never stop beating, for love will always conquer fear.

As someone who suffered a devastating personal tragedy in my childhood, I have always carried a profound, painful sense of loss that, over the course of my whole life and with much difficulty, I learned to transform into a singular productive and creative force through Habitat work; I learned to use that loss and anguish to thoroughly understand the loss and need of others. Three years ago, my first experience of New Orleans and Habitat for Humanity indelibly changed the course of my life. The best way to remember Joseph Massenburg, and people we have loved and lost in our own lives, is to take part in what he loved to do, and to emulate the heart that went into his work: by giving back to others, and to set a place deep in our hearts for reserves of compassion and empathy, that would fuel a lifelong commitment and desire to help in ways big and small, or simply a desire to practice kindness daily. We can grow our souls to serve."

An eternity of thanks to Tarah Allison, Mark, site supervisor Mike and his AmeriCorps counterpart John, Jill Shotwell, and Avery Strada, Jim, and Bonnie of RHINO/St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church. If you wish to volunteer in New Orleans for Habitat for Humanity, and are in search of generous housing, hearty New Orleans cuisine, and a wonderful group of people to meet, please visit RHINO's website:www.scapc.org/RHINO. RHINO offers a terrific package of food, board, and friends that helps streamline the process considerably for the out of state volunteer. The people alone are worth the investment. They take you straight to the soul of New Orleans.

Related Posts:
My Favorite Habitat Site in the U.S.
A Habitat Trip to Denver, CO in 11 Shots
Three Years and 57 Habitat Homes

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