Our Stories

Compassion 101

For the last two years, students with Willamette's Take a Break program restored homes in Louisiana during Christmas break. So moved by the plight of the people she met there, Lindsey Mizell '08 returned to New Orleans for a year of volunteer service. She took $1,500 for a trip that was largely unplanned, slept on floors and commuted by bike, and managed to keep "finely afloat" due to the generosity of friends and strangers. Below are abridged excerpts of emails she sent home.

Subject: changes
Sept. 27, 2006

I immediately noticed changes since my first visit to New Orleans. McDonald's arches are mostly straight now, the thousands of drowned cars beneath the interstates have been removed. The barge that went through the 9th Ward's levee is gone. The pervasive silence of the neighborhoods is interrupted by the occasional chirping bird.

In January, my group could find the street we worked on by turning right before the overturned boat in the middle of the boulevard -- that is gone now too. The Saints are back in the Superdome; the tamale vendor is on his corner.

But many things are as they were. The X's that marked each house have not washed away -- the top quadrant containing the date the house was searched; the left quadrant, the initials of the search team; the right, the hazardous waste within the house; the bottom, the number of bodies.
Numerous square miles of neighborhoods lie vacant, rotting, wondering if and when life will once again return.

Subject: the one thing
Oct. 8, 2006

... As a lone volunteer, I stayed in the church by myself over the weekend and woke up Sunday morning to the sounds of church activity. I sat in a back pew and an elderly woman sat down beside me. She asked what I was doing in New Orleans. When I told her she cried. At the end of the service she placed $25 in my hand.

Subject: saints
Nov. 12, 2006

The pastor asked that we pray for the Saints today. No, not the canonized of heaven. The football team. The New Orleans Saints may never have had a winning record in their history, but as of this morning they are 6-2.

Last year their home, the Superdome, became a symbol of social inequity and political ineptitude. Parts of the roof blew off during the storm, drenching those unable or unwilling to evacuate the city and exacerbating their plight of insufficient food, water, medicine, privacy, safety and bathroom facilities.

Millions were spent to rebirth the Dome, and Sept. 25, the day before I arrived, the Saints retook the field. A season-opening win. There was partying in the streets and every Sunday since, the city has turned black and gold. I haven't missed a game because it's not just a sport this year. In a city where closed businesses, destroyed homes and displaced citizens are the norm, this space-ship-looking cement mass in the heart of the city is a source of hope. It's back. It is functioning as it was intended. And that team, always rooted for but not always achieving (locally nicknamed "the Aints"), is succeeding. So could a sports team really help mend shattered infrastructure and spirits? A friend today reminded me of a World Cup berth that halted a civil war. So what's possible? I don't know, but I think this year the team's name is appropriate in more ways than one.

Subject: water
Dec. 1, 2006

Destruction, hardship, despair. It fills me up like drops of water. The grief. I lie on my bed this evening staring at the wall listening to my new Cajun CD, the drops threatening to flood out of me, but they wouldn't. I decided to call a friend. No answer. But suddenly the phone rang.

"How ya' doin', Lindsey? I was just thinkin' of you." I was shocked when I realized who it was: a homeowner whose house I had worked on weeks ago. She had never called me before. I thought maybe she needed something, but instead she said, "I just wanted to see how you were doing and what you were up to on a Friday night." I didn't say that I am staring at a wall right now extremely overwhelmed. There is so much pain everywhere and sometimes it is unbearable and all I want to do is cry but I can't. That's not what I said. Instead, I said that I was chillin' out, and asked about her kids and the FEMA trailer, and told her I'd be coming with another group next week.

She said she didn't want to use up all my minutes but that if I ever just wanted to talk I could call her anytime. We hung up and my emotions burst out of me. Finally.

It seemed appropriate that in New Orleans -- a place destroyed by flood -- sorrow and grief are likewise expressed by water.

Subject: biloxi
Dec. 4, 2006

Saturday Donna took me to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and she gasped when we hit the water-front. "There used to be casinos," she said, "packed in so tightly you could barely see the sand." Not a single casino remained on that eerily calm sea. I scanned the left side of the road and realized there should have been houses in the clearings between the trees. Only slabs remained. The sea was hungry, I thought.

Donna pondered aloud. "Maybe they are lucky," she said. No moldy memories to scavenge through. No tough questions: Do I bulldoze? Do I salvage and rebuild? Do I sell? No city officials threatening to take your house if you don't gut it quick. Their slate was completely cleaned.

In my head I immediately disagreed with her. Surely it would be better to have one water-warped photograph of your past than none. Surely it would be better to choose how you answer those tough questions than to have them decided for you. But I don't know. I didn't lose a house in the storm. Donna did.

Subject: numbers
May 30, 2007

I've spent 8 months and 5 days in New Orleans. I've worked on 54 houses with 5 different organizations. I have lived in 9 different locations, and have moved between them 26 times.

I came to New Orleans with 1,500 dollars and have gained zero income; but the generosity of others has kept me finely afloat. I was given 1 bike my second week in town, 3 friends allowed me to stay in their homes, 27 different people -- some perfect strangers, others I'd known for mere days -- gave me $889 cash and $450 in gift cards.

I've read 18 books. I have written 53 mass emails, and I've seen 1 Saints' game live.

Subject: finale
June 2, 2007

The sun was orange and burning. It peaked over houses yesterday morning on my last bike ride to Habitat for Humanity. I passed through many neighborhoods. Often I was the only life on the street; many areas still lie deserted.

Progress. Though I've seen plenty of progress since I arrived in September the needs for New Orleans remain immense. The majority of homes are still gutted and lifeless studs. Many schools remain shut down; neighborhood businesses are still boarded up. "Don't forget me," I feel like New Orleans is shouting to the world.

Please hear her.

My time in New Orleans ends today. My plane heading west leaves in five hours. Thank you. Thank you to all of you who have supported and encouraged me along the journey. Thank you for reading -- the stories would have tormented me had I not shared them.

Goodbye. This is my last. Thank you. Thank you.

Mizell's emails have been compiled into a booklet, available online. Proceeds will be donated to the New Orleans relief organizations where Mizell volunteered.