The Parish: An AmeriCorps Story Writer Joel Smith on Site During Build-A-Thon
In 2007, Joel Smith was an AmeriCorps NCCC working for NOAHH in St. Bernard Parish at the original Camp Hope, only a year and a half after the hurricanes and levee failures. Though his AmeriCorps journey took him all around the country, his eight weeks building floor systems for NOAHH remains one of the most formative chapters of his life, and that story is now told in the graphic novel The Parish: An AmeriCorps Story, and for every one sold, a dollar is donated to NOAHH!
Smith and his illustrator Ryan Winet have joined NOAHH on site for the last three days of Build-A-Thon, and we stopped to speak briefly with him about his experiences as an AmeriCorps, his comic, and New Orleans. He reflected on the state of the city in 2007, noting how little had changed between the storms and his 2007 stint building here.
“In my mind, it seemed like a ghost town,” he said. “Even though it was a year and a half after the storm, it did seem like it happened yesterday. To live in this gutted out elementary school with hundreds of volunteers and AmeriCorps members, it was a surreal time to be down here.”
His time with NOAHH was spent leading the construction of floor systems (upon which his team and the volunteers would dance the “Cupid Shuffle” when they finished!), exploring the city and St. Bernard, and learning about himself. His story is a coming-of-age tale in seven episodes set at the fictional Camp Believe, and it focuses on the AmeriCorps team trying to find themselves. With the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps so close together, Smith felt it was the right time to tell his story, with the hopes that it would inspire others to follow a similar path.
“Embrace all of it,” he said. “It’s not always glorious. Sometimes you’re just waiting around. There’s interpersonal conflicts. You can question, ‘what am I really contributing?’ But the internal growth you’re undergoing in AmeriCorps is transformative. It can and has and will continue to change lives.”
Being back in New Orleans allowed him to see how much progress had happened and how much had not changed, and the experience of being on a build site was similar.
“It’s always a dynamic place,” he said. “Incredible resilience and optimism. There’s an incredible mix of people from all over. It’s unlike any other city in this country. At once I feel like it’s putting on an old familiar pair of clothes. Part of it, you’ve been outside it. Your life moves on. It’s kind of like living in the past and present at once. It’s heartening to see.”