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New Orleans trip offers new world view

Binghamton master's of social work students sit in a circle with children from New Orleans' 7th Ward. The graduate students devoted spring break to helping residents of the community, which is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina.

During spring break, I traveled with 14 other master’s of social work students, an MSW graduate and two social workers to New Orleans to provide mental health services to people in the 7th Ward. In connection with an Ithaca-based not-for-profit group, Love Knows No Bounds, we spent a memorable week working with Pastor Bruce from St. John’s #5 Church, his wife, Deborah, and staff connected to social service programs through the church.

We spent three days facilitating trauma work for children in the community, did home visits with homebound elders and families, coordinated services and advocated for residents in the 7th Ward, did HIV/AIDS street outreach and provided a place for children to play and get relief from daily stressors.

Our goal was to give people an opportunity to tell their stories and heal their hearts. Mental health services have not been available to people in this area since soon after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

When people ask me how my trip was, I say that it was amazing, devastating, fun and sad all at the same time.

We drove through neighborhood after neighborhood of empty houses, saw hundreds of people living in tents under bridges with no running water and witnessed housing developments being destroyed, leaving more than 1,500 families without affordable housing.

I listened to kids tell stories of tragedy and show their tremendous resilience through their laughter while playing games. I heard about difficulties I would like to think don’t happen in the United States and then was thanked for taking the time to listen. I saw that the power of listening brought relief and a sincere smile to their faces.

Our group cried, laughed, learned and grew together. It was a week I will never forget. I made friendships that will last a lifetime.

The day after we returned home from our trip, I was sitting in the Social Security office waiting to change my adopted son’s name on his Social Security card when an elderly black man sat down next to me. Normally, I would have looked up and then looked away without engaging in a conversation. Instead, I smiled and talked to the gentleman about the weather and wished him well when I left. He was smiling.

I see people differently now. I see each person with a story to tell, and a day to brighten instead of being focused only on my own life and problems. I see ethnicity and poverty in a new light. I am so blessed in this life, but now I see how quickly it can be taken away and how very long it can take to repair.

After almost three years, thousands of residents of New Orleans are still not in their homes. Houses are boarded up, and you can still see the holes in the roofs where the residents escaped. We drove over bridges where people stayed, some for days, in the sweltering sun with no food or water, blocked from crossing to safer ground and shelter.

I like to believe people in America don’t have to live this way, and that if there were a storm it would be cleaned up and people could go home. Instead, New Orleans looked like a war-ravaged city in a third-world country sitting next to huge hotels and condos in the French Quarter.

As a social worker, I believe I will be back in New Orleans and will do all I can, along with others from the group, to provide supplies, funds and support to our new family in the 7th Ward.

I learned that being with a person and sharing stories, pain and a smile can help heal the heart even when there are so many needs that I cannot begin to meet.

I have seen a community that has lost everything but remains loving, open to sharing and believing in the goodness of others.

Stephanie Gumaer is a student in the MSW Program at Binghamton University.

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Last Updated: 10/14/08