Our van of volunteers arrived in New Orleans' old Treme neighborhood on a cool April morning made for manual labor.
We were assigned hammers and paint brushes at 2030 St. Ann Street, called a shotgun house because rooms follow one after the other from front to back without a hallway or unnecessary walls that would stop a breeze or a bullet.
In the dead of summer, precious breaths of wind may trickle into the front window of a New Orleans shotgun house and wander through all the rooms, leaving unimpeded through a back door or window.
Losing a wife and a home
The double house, about 100 years old, is owned by Vincent Stripling, 64. It has not been occupied since August 2005 when the waters of Hurricane Katrina rose and floated Mr. Stripling out, like most of the rest of this city's residents.
Before the flood, he lived here with his wife, who died in a hospital during the storm. Her life was celebrated in a jazz funeral in this neighborhood known for its musical roots. Treme was one of the first places in the United States where freed blacks could own property.
In August 2005, Treme was under water. Since the storm, Mr. Stripling has lived in a trailer, working as a cleaner at Harrah's casino, spending his spare time getting his house back in order, removing the moldy walls and buying roofing, windows, doors and siding with a government $40,000 loan. He is out of money, but some work goes on, as volunteers from Rebuilding Together put finishing touches on the house that has been in the Stripling family for 43 years.
Organizing volunteers to rebuild houses
Rebuilding Together is an organization that pledges to help people who own their own homes. The New Orleans team has rebuilt some 90 houses in five neighborhoods since Katrina, thanks to a stream of volunteers that continues to make New Orleans a prime destination for working vacations.
"We want to bring people back home," said local director Camille Lopez, "but we don't do anything fancy."
So, we set about constructing a privacy fence from recycled boards rescued from buildings torn down nearby.
The only new wood was stakes set in the ground to hold the recycled boards, which we nail-gunned to the stakes, primed white and painted a dark green.
Our group included one-day volunteers from Philadelphia, San Francisco, St. Petersburg, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland and Stockholm. All were editors and writers meeting in New Orleans the next day in a professional development session of the Society of American Travel Writers.
Longer-term workers included Cambria Marinelli, 25, from Boston, and Grady Minnis, 27, of Meadville, Pa., both AmeriCorps volunteers and Michael Dion, 61, of Bexley, Ohio, who said this was her second volunteer effort in New Orleans, following a visit in 2007 with Elderhostel.
We sawed, nailed, swept, shoveled and painted -- a rewarding and productive day.
In a matter of hours, we built a fence for Mr. Stripling.
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Molyneaux is editor of TravelMavens.net. CLICK for articles on cruising, Florida, Europe, adventure and travel gear and gadgets.