Common Ground Relief effort in New Orleans

By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Media Services

Izzie Alley, 11, looked around cautiously, as she stepped inside the small New Orleans garage that has been temporarily converted into a studio apartment for the Strauss family.

“Smaller than your bedroom,” observed Margie Alley, Izzie’s mom. Izzie nodded, taking in the space crammed with three beds, computer, clothes, and fridge. Nearly three years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, thousands like the middle-class Strausses are still trying to pick up the pieces .The Alleys have come from suburban New York during a sunny spring week to help.

“I love them,” said an appreciative Denise Strauss, the mom of a 10-year-old daughter and herself a volunteer. “They get to see the human element in all this.” She told the Alleys how they left their home with not much more than the shorts and flip-flops they were wearing and didn’t return for more than a year.

“We know from stress, but not this kind of stress,” said Izzie’s grandmother, Judy Goldsmith, a florist from Manhasset, N.Y., who got the idea to bring her family here when she met a family who had spent time volunteering in New Orleans as part of a Bar Mitzvah celebration. Through them, she founded the organization Beacon of Hope Resource Center (, which is one of the few volunteer organizations that can arrange projects suitable for families with young kids.

All along the block in the middle-class Lakeview neighborhood where the Strauss family lives, less than a mile from the 17th Street Canal levee break, are houses in various stages of construction. Some are still boarded up; others are brand new, with flowers planted outside. Fewer than half the houses in the neighborhood are occupied. The Strausses hope to be back in their house by June 1 and the Alleys and the Goldsmiths are doing what they can to help, stacking bricks and clearing debris. It’s hot, sweaty work but the Alley kids don’t mind. “You feel good doing this,” Izzie said.

The situation is more desperate a few miles away in the Lower Ninth Ward, which was completely destroyed. None of us will ever forget those haunting images of people waiting on their roofs for rescue. In the Lower Ninth Ward, far fewer homes have been rebuilt; concrete slabs and a few steps are all that’s left of some. In a front-page story recently, The Times-Picayune reported that the slow progress and little help from city agencies frustrate residents of these storm-damaged neighborhoods.

“A lot of people had no insurance,” explains Pam Dashiell, of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Center. “They are working on their houses as they can and they need all the help they can get. The progress that’s being made is because of people coming to help. It’s a real person-to-person thing.”

There are college kids from around the country working here this week. And this is the area where Brad Pitt is focusing his much publicized — and much appreciated — efforts. (Your kids could donate $5 of their vacation souvenir or birthday money to

But even in upscale neighborhoods, like in Metairie where Jeanne Elizardi raised her three kids, progress has been slow. Some million-dollar houses have been gutted and abandoned, she said. “It’s just so sad how long it is taking people to get back on their feet,” said Elizardi, who has been deeply involved in the volunteer effort.

But there is a lot of good news here, too. Tourism is back — big time. Walk around the French Quarter where the Alleys are staying and you’ll see an entirely different New Orleans. (Check out the summer packages at the historic Hotel Monteleone ( Restaurants in the French Quarter are packed. Tourists are everywhere, eating New Orleans’ famous beignets (sugar covered pastries) at Cafe Du Monde (, listening to the street musicians in front of Jackson Square and strolling through Woldenberg Riverfront Park, going to the first-rate Audubon Aquarium (check out the white alligator) and Audubon Zoo ( They’re taking the free ferry to visit Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World ( where many of the floats are built, walking down Bourbon Street, shopping (gotta have some Mardi Gras beads) and touring museums. Check out the Mardi Gras exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum (

Tourists line up outside before 9 a.m. waiting for Brennan’s ( to open for their famous three-course breakfast, which ends with bananas foster, and at lunchtime outside the Acme Oyster House (, here since 1910. (Acme is the place to introduce the kids to New Orleans’ famous po-boy sandwiches, New Orleans officials are proud to tell you that there are now 910 restaurants here — 100 more than there were pre-Katrina. Kids will also love the Red Fish Grill (, which offers all sorts of fish sculptures, mobiles and a kid-friendly menu.

There are plantation tours and airboat rides in the swamps of Cajun country. Visit or to plan your itinerary. If you want a guide who plays to the kids, Mary LaCoste, a retired education professor and grandmother, is terrific. E-mail her at edprofno(at)

Because there is so much to see and do here (not to mention eat), New Orleans is a great place to combine a volunteer effort with some sightseeing – as did the Alleys and Goldsmiths. You’ll feel good contributing to the economy and the kids might absorb a little history in the process. So what was the Louisiana Purchase all about? Gumbo anyone? Fried alligator?

“You come away with so much more than you give,” promises Ted Goldsmith, a retired businessman who had never done anything like this before on vacation.

“Seeing it on TV isn’t the same as experiencing it yourself,” added his granddaughter Izzie. “And it’s been fun.”

For more volunteer opportunities in Louisiana, visit Some nonprofits can even arrange housing. Check out the Spirit to Serve program at Marriott ( and Renaissance Hotels, which will give $50 of your room rate to New Orleans Habitat for Humanity. They’ll also throw in free breakfast. Rates start at $149. Make sure to tell hotels, restaurants and attractions you are volunteering. They are very appreciative and may be able to offer a discount, or at least an extra dessert. And make sure you check out special discounts for volunteer travel at (

A few blocks away from the Strausses, a group of parents and teens from a British Columbia Indian tribe from Lillooet, British Columbia, were hard at work building a community garden on an empty lot. They felt compelled to come, their pastor, Mark Smith explained, because New Orleans volunteers had helped at a summer camp in their community. Some of these kids had never been on a plane before and raised the money for the trip themselves.

“It’s important for the kids to think of other people than themselves,” said Leona Joseph, a bookkeeper who had come with her 15-year-old daughter and other relatives. “It’s good for them to see that they can help, even if they are just kids.”

The kids find it liberating to be focused on something else besides the latest school drama, said Beacon of Hope’s Connie Uddo. “They get a week of vacation from themselves.” She has had families volunteer to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, reunions and recovery from illness by volunteering in New Orleans.
“So much good is coming out of all of this,” added Jeanne Elizardi, as we drove around looking at the building projects. “We just hope people don’t forget that we still need everyone’s help.”

For more on Eileen’s recent trip to New Orleans, read her trip diary at



Since Hurricane Katrina, Tulane University has taken a lead nationally in organizing service learning initiatives and now requires them for graduation. If you are embarking on a volunteer project with your kids in New Orleans or elsewhere, Vincent Ilustre, the executive director of Tulane University’s Center for Public Service ( suggests:

— DO research before you arrive so the kids have an understanding of exactly what happened during and after Hurricane Katrina. Just search the Internet for “Katrina projects.”

— PLAN a project before you arrive. (Visit, or

— LISTEN to the locals. Don’t come thinking you have all the answers.

— ASK, “How are you doing?” The locals will be glad to tell you their story.

— TALK to the kids about the experience and how they can continue volunteer efforts at home.

“By coming here, they realize they can help,” explains Ilustre.