In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, organizations and individuals respond in kind with financial support and sweat equity.  After Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, a wave of volunteers responded. Nine years later they continue giving their time and talents toward the region’s recovery.  Some come with church groups or non-profit relief organizations; others with their friends.

The transformative impact of volunteering in a post disaster environment is the subject of scholarly research.  Volunteers and those who are beneficiaries of their work are impacted by their interaction.

Among the volunteers working this summer in New Orleans were my dear niece Claire Natalie Bankson, her fiancé Kyle McPherson and their friends Shaylee Roberts and David Uhl. They left their work in the Seattle area and chose to spend a week in New Orleans where the August heat index passes 100⁰.

Their original plans were to do volunteer construction work in Nicaragua at the Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH) Home Orphanage. NPH (Spanish for "Our Little Brothers and Sisters") is raising more than 3,200 boys and girls in Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru. When a medical brigade from Canada could only come the week they had committed to volunteer they had to readjust their plans. They found volunteer opportunities in New Orleans at The St. Bernard Project,the Harry Thompson Center and Greenlight New Orleans

The four consider volunteering an essential part of their lives. David was a Jesuit Volunteer Corps member. During undergraduate studies, Clarie Natalie spent five weeks in Sierra Leon through the University of Washington's Honors Program.  Her student group participated in home stays at a small village community, conducting independent studies.  “The project centered on the lives of women in the community, and West Africa in general, and their perceptions of themselves in comparison to the Western-centric views we typically take for granted,” she said. “We brought with us clothing, mosquito nets and other items that we left for the community. A portion of the funds we contributed to the village toward house renovations, new beds and single locking rooms where we lived during our stay.”

In New Orleans for The St. Bernard Project, they did construction work that Claire Natalie described as “incredibly physically taxing in the New Orleans heat!” The Harry Thompson Recovery Center, in the heart of the medical district downtown, ministers to the homeless. Clarie Natalie found that work “surprisingly personal. We interacted with people located all across New Orleans geographically and from all walks of life. It stretched my conception of the local community and gave me a much greater appreciation for the diversity of situations, not only since Hurricane Katrina, but also pre-existing where people have found themselves in situations through no more than the hand fate dealt them. I was humbled. In providing or facilitating a basic service such as phone charging at the Center we were giving something to people which I felt they so dearly deserved to be able to provide for themselves. To be such an intimate part of a stranger's life through their own necessity, albeit for a moment in time, removed so many of my layers of mental separation between myself and the other person. There is not so much that removes my life and its many blessings from the people I served.”

“Volunteering is a wonderful way to share the blessings I have been given in my own life - if only unskilled labor or time! I have enjoyed meeting new people and giving back outside of my typical home community.“

Photo caption: Left to right – Volunteers David Uhl, Natalie Claire Bankson, Kyle McPherson and Shaylee Roberts at a home construction site for The St. Bernard Project during their August visit to New Orleans.

Sandra Cordray is a co-author of the book, Nursing in the Storm: Voices From Hurricane Katrina. Read more from them on our blog or check out their title "Nursing in the Storm: Voices from Hurricane Katrina".