Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Cornell Team - Day 1

Day 1: Southeast Louisiana is huggin’ country

The members of the Cornell team were finally able to navigate the late winter travel obstacles and come together just around dinner time on Saturday night, the inaugural evening of the New Orleans Entrepreneur Week. We raised our glasses around a typical New Orleans table piled high with lobster, oysters, and shrimp and prepared ourselves for a pretty great week with our partner organization, Schedulist, and its CEO and founder, Chris Laibe. I even conquered my own aversion to sea life and indulged in an oyster wrapped in herbs and butter. I’m still alive.

Sunday morning served as a somewhat unexpected, but crucial and rewarding start to the week. The Cornell team knew that it was headed to the St. Bernard Parish to lend its hands to the St. Bernard Project, but I’m not entirely sure that the team was aware of the gravity of the troubles still facing the region, almost 5 years after Hurricane Katrina. The St. Bernard Project is a non-profit organization that was started in March 2006 to help rebuild houses in the local neighborhood that were affected by the hurricane. Since then, the group has rebuilt over 260 homes, and has served as a source of inspiration, hope, and service to the community. The project employees are quick to point out that there are still approximately 9,000 or so homes that remain unlivable. We spent the first portion of the morning listening to the organization’s co-founders, Zach Rosenburg and Liz McCartney, speak to the experiences and mission of the group, and then we headed out to sand and mud drywall at a working site. I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to Danny Hest and Henry Parry-Okeden for their pretty keen mudding skills; both led the way during an enjoyable and productive morning.

After a short lunch break we were able to have a chat with Mr. Mendoza, a client of the Project’s, and a former resident of the St. Bernard Parish. Mr. Mendoza, who is still living in a contaminated FEMA trailer, spoke to his own displacement, and the scattering of his family, including his mother and brothers, friends, and associates. He talked about the altered neighborhood dynamic, the loss of his job, the trust, and lack thereof, between certain businesses in the community and its residents, and the family spirit and ethic that were damaged as a result of the hurricane. We concluded our lunch by visiting Mr. Mendoza’s new house, which upon the completion of some remaining electrical work, will serve as his first proper home in over 4 years. If I was a greater poet I would perhaps be more subtle in describing the profound nuances of the visits, but unfortunately I'm not. And at the risk of being overly transparent, I have to say that much of the experience with Mr. Mendoza and the St. Bernard Project was inspiring and humbling, to say the least. It also served as a great glimpse into the New Orleans community, and all of its humility, hard work, altruism, and desire to grow together. There’s certainly a tangible family spirit in this town. In Mr. Mendoza’s own words, “Southeast Louisiana is huggin’ country.”

The day proceeded with a more than entertaining bus tour of the city, both its good parts and bad, and ultimately concluded (or so we thought), with a fantastic dinner at Café Reconcile. Café Reconcile is yet another inspiring story inside New Orleans, of which I would encourage everyone to click on the preceding link to learn more about the endeavor. After a pretty fantastic serving of the Café’s award winning banana foster bread pudding to finish up the meal, Chris packed up most of the crew for a trip to Snug Harbor, where we ended the night with a great jazz set, before hitting the hotel to ramp up for a new day...

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