By Joanna Citarella
Think of New Orleans, and what springs to mind? The infamous Bourbon Street nightlife, the French Quarter, outstanding Creole cuisine, Jazz, and of course, Hurricane Katrina.
Visiting New Orleans four years post-Katrina, it’s clear that the city is back in business, but away from the hustle and bustle of Bourbon Street and the quaint charm of the French Quarter, things are a little different. On a recent trip to New Orleans for an Orbitz team meeting, me and 30 of my colleagues had a rare opportunity to spend some time away from our New Orleans hotel and see another side of the city.
As we boarded a school bus outside our hotel on Bourbon Street, we were told only that we would be spending the morning at GW Carver High School in the 9th Ward, one of the hardest hit areas of the city, as part of a community service project. The damage was still obvious in the hurricane-ravaged upper 9th Ward; we passed by numerous abandoned homes bearing telltale spray-painted “X”s left by search and rescue parties in the wake of the storm. In the very heart of the neighborhood we arrived at GW Carver High School. Here students attend class in prefabricated structures stationed in the parking lot of the original school, which is now condemned after being destroyed by ten feet of flood water.
We were met by a group of enthusiastic students (all of whom were members of the Key Club, an international student leadership organization) who extended a warm welcome and were ready to get started. After a tour of the school it was down to work. Our task for the morning — divide into teams (each led by a Carver student) and create a mural that incorporated the school’s guiding principles: Come prepared. Show self control. Have respect. Work hard. Be goal oriented. We had two hours to complete our murals before the vice-principal would then judge our creative masterpieces and name a winner. Consideration would be given for creativity and artistic flair, but most importantly, the ultimate goal of the project was to capture the essence of the school spirit, and some major points were up for grabs here.
Organized chaos ensued as we vied for paints, brushes and other supplies in a race to the finish. Competition was and fierce yet good-natured as we set about planning, sketching and integrating school buzzwords. As we painted and chatted with the students, I learned that many had returned to New Orleans with their families after the storm, some had never left, but all had been impacted by Katrina. As for Carver’s teachers, some were New Orleans natives, while others had come with Teach for America and were relatively new to the area. But across the diversity one thing was clear: everyone at Carver shares an incredible sense of school pride, and with good reason.
Students and teachers at Carver are making things happen, working tirelessly to raise $1.85 million to fund the 9th Ward Field of Dreams that will be located on campus and will really open some doors to students at Carver and empower the community. They have already raised over $1.1 million since the project launched in November 2008, including a $200,000 NFL grant and a $137,000 donation from Nike.
It was truly an awesome experience to spend some time away from our New Orleans hotel working with the students at Carver. Their energy and enthusiasm were contagious, and one thing is absolutely certain: given the pride and passion of Carver students and the commitment and the dedication of its teachers, I think this school can count on a bright and exciting future.
Joanna Citarella is a market manager for Orbitz Worldwide. She grew up in England and moved to Naples, Fla., nine years ago, favoring the perpetual sunshine over the unpredictable British weather.