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New Orleans a mecca for 'voluntourism'

After Hurricane Katrina, volunteers arrived in New Orleans in droves to help fix the city. People from across the globe came ready to gut, clear debris, hang drywall, drain sludge-filled pools.

Nine years later, they still come. Now, with the obvious post-Katrina issues mostly under control, they are finding new problems to address, new causes to embrace, new people to help. And in their off hours, they’re having a great time in the city.

It’s called “voluntourism,” this trend toward combining vacation and service, and New Orleans is a prime place to practice it. For one local organization, Rebuliding Hope in New Orleans (RHINO), the concept has helped shape its service offerings as Katrina need gives way to urban need in New Orleans. The headline on its current brochure reads “RHINO: Where service and vacation collide.”

“We spent the first five to eight years fixing the obvious post-Katrina problems,” says Emma Pegues, RHINO director. “Now we’re devoting volunteer hours to issues that were there before Katrina – education, poverty, homelessness.”

RHINO, an outreach arm of the St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church, was formed in the days right after Katrina, to hit the ground running on storm clean-up. The group has put to work almost 6,000 volunteers from three countries, 42 states, 66 American cities. They have given New Orleans 209,000 service hours, and many of them continue to return each year.

Nowadays, they have more voice in what they do here, where they stay here, how they spend their work and leisure hours here. And in some ways, says Pegues, that makes their volunteer visits even more meaningful.

“As New Orleans returns to normal, or maybe its traditional abnormal, volunteers are starting to see problems they also see at home. It helps them really identify with the city.”

Also, as new disasters occur, Katrina doesn’t resonate as readily as it once did.

“We’ve stopped the Katrina tour we used to do,” Pegues says. “Young people here on alternative breaks especially don’t identify with that. Most of them were just too young when Katrina happened.”

These days, RHINO volunteers can check off “construction” or “non-construction” activities when they sign up online for a service trip to New Orleans. Those who like the heavy lifting are steered toward Habitat for Humanity or St. Bernard Project sites, like the 36 new Habitat houses that St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian built in the Ferry Place neighborhood – a community that did not flood in Katrina, but one where a home-ownership cluster can have a significant impact on local economics, safety, education and the like.

“RHINO volunteers have worked on 17 different houses in a dozen neighborhoods in the past year alone,” says Pegues. “Campers in our summer RHINO Camp actually gutted a house that hadn’t been touched since the storm. But that’s very rare.”

RHINO is consciously expanding the service experience beyond construction. Pegues works closely with non-construction groups to find out what exactly its members want to do. Then she matches the members with projects from a dozen local organizations, such as Second Harvest Food Bank or Magnolia School, Eden House or the Edible School Yard.

“Visitors might be interested in a food bank, or homelessess, or want to spend a day with adults with developmental differences,” Pegues explains. “If you do a trip and don’t connect with the work, or feel needed, it impacts both your stay and how you feel about New Orleans.”

"We don’t 'fix' New Orleans during our mission trip – but perhaps we give a little hope to some people," says Jon Raymond, Cary, NC, who has been on work five trips to New Orleans.

The voluntourism concept has long been popular with the college crowd, mostly in the form of alternative breaks. Susquehanna College in Pennsylvania has gone a step further, adding it to the curriculum: The college has structured a course around RHINO, whose students culminate the class with a trip to New Orleans.

There’s also a Camp RHINO each summer that draws a couple of hundred school-age kids.

“You hear so much negativity about the current and upcoming generations – our self-absorption, the apathy.  But I don’t see that,” says Pegues, who has a degree in sociology from Tulane. “I see individuals and groups who realize that change has to come organically and that it has to come from them or it won’t come at all.  And hey, if they want to take a selfie while repairing siding on a home, then more power to them.  Be proud of what you’re doing.”

"When a few people unite to achieve a common goal, amazing things begin to happen," says Diana Lively of St. Louis. "That’s what keeps us coming back, the bonds we created with our friends in New Orleans and the bonds we create with each other."

Once here, volunteers are required to work five 8-hour days during their weeklong stay. “They work hard onsite, “ Pegues says, “And we really appreciate that.“

But there also is built-in time for the more traditional New Orleans-style visit. Instead of bedroll or dormitory cot, visitors these days stay in hotels. Instead of the aforementioned Katrina tour, they now get a list of restaurants and schedule of live music happenings during their stay. Some groups come early or stay late to add a weekend of sightseeing to the schedule.

“They can install siding in the morning and go to Bourbon Street that night,” Pegues says. “But they sill have to be on duty at 7:45 the next morning.”

Pegues sends advance packets to the groups, so that they can plan ahead. It includes one early and one late live music show each day, special events going on that week, festivals, whatever. One group now comes every year during French Quarter Fest. Another always puts brunch at Commander’s Palace on the event menu.

“A high-school group from Connecticut last year arrived just before Mardi Gras and caught a few parades. The kids thought it was incredible,” Pegues says. “I remember one group of girls who went to Acme and tried raw oysters for the first time. Just watching their faces was so much fun. And it needs to be fun, for them to be fully engaged.”

New Orleans offers a particularly strong pull for the voluntourism crowd, Pegues believes. And it’s not just because we have great restaurants or Bourbon Street.

“What keeps volunteers coming back is that special feeling you get when you pair hard work with a feeling of hospitality,” she says. “Volunteers are seeking experiences with each other, with the people they volunteer for, and with New Orleanians. It’s that last that makes a difference here.

“You can go anywhere and get a good experience with service work. But hospitality here is a way of life. It’s something you can feel. People may call this the City that Care Forgot, but people here have never forgotten to care. It restores your faith in humanity.”

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]