Finding solace in helping those with bigger problems

09/02/2010 12:00 AM |

Laura Courtney (bottom right) of Jamesport takes a break with other Habitat for Humanity volunteers while building a New Orleans home for a hurricane Katrina victim.

Last week Laura Courtney, distressed after having to place her aging mother in an assisted living facility, packed her bags and headed down South to help some people with problems bigger than her own.

She left her Jamesport outbuilding restoration business, Imagine Farms and Gardens, in the hands of her staff and boarded a plane for New Orleans for five days of volunteering and a little soul searching.

“I just had to follow my heart,” she said. “And I’m really glad I did.”

The Gulf oil spill is what initially spurred the Jamesport resident to seek out ways to help out. She soon discovered that biology experts are most needed in the Gulf so she decided to turn her efforts toward New Orleans and Habitat for Humanity. She learned that Habitat was leading a build-a-thon — assembling five houses in five days for the fifth anniversary of hurricanes Katrina and Rita — and decided to sign on.

Ms. Courtney estimated that she spent about $1,000 of her own money, more than $400 for the plane ticket alone, to finance the trip. For $35 a day, she received lodging at a Unitarian church and three meals a day. One of the highlights of the trip was the Creole cuisine — chicken and rice and eggplant, among other dishes– served every night at the church.

Ms. Courtney said that when she first arrived on the job site at 7 a.m. last Monday, the foundation of the house was already set, but there were about 30 wall components stacked, labeled and waiting to be assembled. The 200 volunteers were divided into crews and got busy, working to get the framing of the house in place and make sure everything was level.

Ms. Courtney compared what she took part in that morning to a barn raising.

“It was very organized,” she said.

The volunteers, working side by side with the people who would live in the finished houses, erected all the outside and inside walls and completed the exterior sheathing on the first day.

Ms. Courtney worked so hard that she suffered heat exhaustion three days in. The weather, 90-degrees-plus coupled with New Orleans’ oppressive humidity, was too much for her and she spent five hours in a hospital on Wednesday. For the balance of the trip, she worked desk duty in an office.

Habitat for Humanity has helped build 2,219 new houses along the Gulf Coast beyond since the hurricanes hit in 2005, according to statistics provided by the organization. But many of the 100,000 people who were left homeless remain displaced.

“There is still a great need in the region, and Habitat’s 21 Gulf Coast affiliates continue to build, repair and rehab more than 400 houses a year with the help of volunteer labor and donations of money and materials,” said Kip Scheidler, senior director of global disaster response for Habitat for Humanity International. “Every anniversary gives us a chance to reflect on the work we’ve done and to recharge for the work ahead.”

Though much of New Orleans’ French Quarter and Bourbon Street have been repaired since 2005, Ms. Courtney noted that many of the city’s poorer areas still need help. “It still looks like it got hit by a hurricane last week,” she said.

Although Ms. Courtney said she was grateful for the chance to help others rebuild their lives, she said volunteering benefitted her own soul more than anything else.

“If you are feeling lost and so overwhelmed with your own problems,” she said, “stepping out and helping other people really puts things in perspective.”

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