Home Sweet Home
By Susan Esco Chandler; Psi, University of Oklahoma
It was Thomas Wolfe who said you can never go home again. Well, what constitutes home? How long must one live in a place before it can be called home? And what if you leave what you consider home, want to go back, but know you never can? These questions are swirling in my head tonight after a whirlwind day with Alpha Chi Omega’s first ever alumnae service initiative in New Orleans.
The summer after I graduated from the University of Oklahoma, my best friend from fourth grade invited me to come down to New Orleans and share an apartment with her. She was working at Charity Hospital and had a car; I had no car and not a clue of what to do for work. After a concentrated effort to find gainful employment, I found myself in a manager trainee program at the original Canal Street location of D.H. Holmes Co., Ltd., a New Orleans department store chain with locations in five Southern states. I was thrilled; my new roommate and I found an affordable spot in the French Quarter, work was just a five minute walk away and we both traded in our out of state drivers’ licenses and declared ourselves Louisiana residents! Home Sweet Home!
Fast forward forty years after living in seven more cities. Today I found myself driving around the Crescent City with several of my Alpha Chi Omega sisters who, like me, have joined our fraternity’s initial alumnae service endeavor to make a difference in the Big Easy. We had no idea what we would be doing here when we signed up to volunteer. The application had a list of skills that we were requested to check off. Carpentry? Plumbing? Finish Work? Well, I could finish my work but none of the above found a mark on my application. As a mother of two, the child care square had my only mark. My ‘making a difference’ would be a long shot, for sure. But the Girl Scout Motto that had served very well for many years echoed in my head: ‘Be Prepared.’
Sure enough, after our tour of the Lower Ninth Ward where the most devastation had occurred during Hurricane Katrina, we were on our way to begin working with a young family who had lost their home to Katrina and were now renovating a 1951 small abode. And guess what? On the job training was the order of the day. Drywall and insulation installation, taping and mudding, how to use a grater to smooth off the edge of plasterboard, using a power screwdriver (both forward and reverse) and learning SO MUCH! Who knew you put baby powder on your skin before you handled that devilish pink insulation? That there were options on taping: a stretchy mesh vs. wet paper; both needing lots of mud at just the right consistency. This was being prepared and rising to the needs. We were, to a sister, real, strong women.
Each of us comes from a different perspective: what shapes and molds us is as unique and different as our fingerprints. Today each of my sisters had different reactions and impressions from the unique people and places we encountered. Most would agree that the full range of human emotions were alive and well in our collective experiences. From horror and anger to compassion, laughter and tears, we were united in the understanding that too many of our fellow Americans had lost their homes here and many were, after too many years, still homeless. Too many families were forced to flee New Orleans in the wretched aftermath of the breached levees and storm surge. Too many left and many have not returned. They will never return.
Yet there is a core of folks who have managed to remain, many of whom lost everything when the waters rushed in, just like one of our tour guides today, Denise. Others have come to New Orleans to try and make a difference, like our job foreman, 82 year old Walt, who has renovated churches throughout the Midwest and moved on to rehabilitating homes in New Orleans. Then there is Mark, a former New Orleans police officer who lost his home and was forced to resign from the force because he no longer lived within the city proper. He lived nowhere and drifted from jobs and relatives’ couches until found his future home on Montgomery Street, which we are helping to restore and renew. Mark’s son, four year old Cole, watches a diverse group of women help his dream come true: a bedroom in a home – his home – where we hope his family will be safe and happy for many years to come. Home Sweet Home!