Renewal is at the heart of NOAHH’s cause. Every homeowner in our program is working toward a new life, a chance to make things better for themselves and their families. Our affiliate has also been at the center of the rebuilding efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a task that is ongoing even 9 years later. Nothing our affiliate does isn’t part of seeking some form of renewal, even our New Orleans Habitat Urban Garden Initiative or our A Brush With Kindness program. In every aspect of our organization, we look for chances to improve our community, so when the New Orleans Mission bid for some of NOAHH’s lot maintenance work, it was a perfect partnership for our affiliate.
The New Orleans Mission is an interdenominational Christian nonprofit that provides services for homeless men and women, including shelter and counseling services. They have several discipleship and work placement programs that help people in need learn job skills or find employment. After connecting with NOAHH, they expanded their partnership with the affiliate in order to include not just lot maintenance but also foundation work. The foundation construction program combines experienced NOAHH staff with people in the Mission’s programs so that they can gain experience and construction skills while helping NOAHH build homes.
Some of the workers from the Mission already have construction experience to bring to the site, having done masonry work at the new hospital downtown. Carl Dennis Allen came to New Orleans to do contract work. When the contract fell through, he was left in limbo until someone from the Mission invited him to lunch. He learned of the program with New Orleans Habitat through the director of the Mission. He soon found himself helping NOAHH move their warehouse, then later joining the foundation work. According to Carl, he joined the program not just to use his construction skills, but to get a new lease on life.
“The Mission’s helped me out a great deal in that area as far as getting some peace of mind, getting some spirituality, and putting a few bucks in my pocket. It’s a good deal. I don’t see how I can lose,” he said. “I came from a pretty tight knit family and being about a thousand miles away from home and working with people like this and knowing that you’re doing something for the city and for the state, just being a part of another family… words are hard to describe it. I’m just having a lot of fun, man. I’m having a lot of fun doing it.”
Like Carl, John Reeves also brings construction experience with him to the project. He has been working construction jobs since he was 16 years old, but, he says, he’s still learned a great deal while working with the program, especially about the requirements for homebuilding. He also says he learned something more:
“I was dealing with some personal issues and let me tell you, just from being around some good people and obtaining some positive attitudes and advice, I’m working better with others now… this has actually helped me out. It’s been a good outlet. It’s been a good vent, knowing I’m doing something positive and constructive, and doing it with other people.”
Also helping them these last few weeks have been students from the NET Charter High School. The NET’s program is designed to provide education and skills training to struggling high school students through innovative approaches. Byron Bishop teaches construction classes at the high school, and during a class on framing, he realized that he could provide a much better education to his students if he moved the classroom to actual work sites. Having previously worked with NOAHH through his Workforce Works program, he knew he could count on the affiliate to help him create a mobile classroom that brought the students to real homebuilding projects.
The program began two weeks ago, with his students joining NOAHH staff who showed them how to build a foundation from beginning to end. If possible, future classes will follow a Habitat home to completion. According to Bishop, his goal was not just to teach them how to build a foundation, but how to apply the skills they learned on site to broader experience.
“I think that’s really the focus. It is helping them reach and obtain the things they want to reach and obtain by getting the field work, field training, and education to a place where they can actually become gainfully and respectfully employed,” he said. “I think the only struggle was the first few days, because the hardest part of the work we were doing then. But after they have had a chance to come out here and actually be out here, I think they would rather have the classroom out here than to be sitting in a classroom where we had limited opportunity to do things or build things. So it turns out to be a very positive thing.”
According to the students, the class has given them new insights and perspectives. Di’Jon Williams had no prior construction experience, but he caught on fast. Though he expected heat and exhaustion, he says what he found was “good team work” and a new understanding of the importance of foundation work.
“You gotta focus on foundation,” he said. “I realized how important the starting part is. You can’t make a mistake early on, or you might not notice til later and have to start all over.”
Wyne Burnett joined the program for summer credit. Though he was also hesitant at first, he discovered he enjoyed the work. Now, he says, he would not mind getting a job in construction, at least for a little while.
“It actually changed my state of mind about houses. Now when I look at a house, I’m like, man, you have to go through all this just to get the house done,” he said. “I actually look at construction workers different too now. When I got out here and started really working, sweating, hard work, usually when I’d just look, I’d be like… man, those people. Now, when I walk past a construction worker, I really give them my highest honor, ’cause when I got out here digging piles and man it was hard work. I didn’t know how actually hard they was working til I came out here and did it myself.”
Like the Mission workers, the students cite working with a group as a transformative experience, and Carl Dennis Allen noted that he learned from teaching them. Working alongside the NET students, he lent his experience and expertise, showing them what he had learned during his time working with NOAHH and from previous construction experiences.
“For me, it’s learning the patience to take time out to show a youngster how to do something,” he said. “Using what I’ve learned and helping them growing up in a small way.”
Both groups also expressed satisfaction in watching the work progress. Cory Antoine came to the summer program because he worked on several construction projects during the school year, including building two walls and some maintenance work. He says he enjoyed the rebar and concrete work with NOAHH, and that he looks forward to one day building the walls of a Habitat house.
“It feels good to see it come together,” he said. “I can come out here to say I put my part in to build this.”
“Man, it feels great to be a part of something like that,” Carl said. “To know that you’re really helping someone, not just helping others, but you’re helping yourself grow. It’s just good moral conduct to help others, not be so much about ‘me me me.’ Doing something for somebody else, you know, that’s one of the characteristics and traits of a Christian.”
Whether they are adults looking for a second chance or students finding their way through high school, they have learned from their time on site. The stories of both the Mission workers and the students show that one person’s renewal can empower another’s. It’s clear in the way the Mission workers like Carl Allen Dennis take time to help the students when they come on site, and in the way that all of them are contributing to the new home of a Habitat partner family. Through these partnerships, NOAHH hopes to continue to grow and improve, expanding our impact on the community in significant ways.