Lift a Shovel in New Orleans
Kara Steinman's stay in New Orleans was supposed to be short, a blip in her yearlong commitment to AmeriCorps. But it took her less than a month to decide she couldn't leave. Maybe the realization came when she was rebuilding houses with Habitat for Humanity and a group of musician homeowners pulled out their instruments and began to play. "I started bawling," Steinman says. "I was just overwhelmed."
Instead of moving on to Denver with AmeriCorps, she decided to take a permanent job at Habitat. "That happens to a lot of people," she says. "At least half of the crew leaders ... ended up staying indefinitely.... It was the most fulfilling work I'd ever done in my entire life."
She's hardly alone. Major Speights of Texas, a retired pastor, helped for a week and sums up the experience with the same comment. The rewards, he says, came partly from the people he met. In addition to the single mother whose home he was building, Speights met a retired engineer from Seattle, a group of female golf coaches, and a bridal party gathered at the request of the couple-to-be. "It was hot, and we sweated," Speights recalls. "But we still had a great time."
Habitat plans to build 250 homes in New Orleans next year and, spokesman Aleis Tusa says, "We can always use volunteers." All ages and ability levels are welcome, and only a single day's commitment is required.
Days start at 7:15 a.m., include a one-hour lunch break, and end at 2:30 p.m. Volunteers can find their own accommodations or stay at Camp Hope, which provides a bed and three meals for $20 a day.
Music built in. Not all lunch hours include spontaneous musical performances, but evenings often do. "You're so close to musicians, they can tell you firsthand where they're going to be playing that night," Steinman says.
The Musicians' Village project is the brainchild of Harry Connick Jr. and Branford and Ellis Marsalis, who decided to build homes for musicians and others on land that used to be occupied by a school.
Mike Flores, executive vice president of the Baptist Crossroads Foundation, which intends to build 300 homes over the next five years, advises volunteers to plan long term. "If you can't do it this summer, if you can't do it this spring, how about next spring? How about next summer?" he says. "We're going to be in it for the long haul."
This story appears in the December 25, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.