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Volunteers bring joy, laughter to Gulf

"Sense of normalcy" returning to Katrina-ravaged community.

BY NANCY HOGLAND | CHALMETTE, LA | April 17, 2007

Squeals of laughter fill the air as children race around a newly built playground in the heart of St. Bernard Parish.

Five-year-old Christopher, who lives a short distance from the park, says he is crazy about his new play place.

"It's real fun and it's real cool," he says excitedly. "You can run real fast there and climb on stuff. I love it."

Nearly 500 students from Georgia Technical Institute constructed the 2,100-square-foot play area complete with swings, slides and climbing apparatus in Chalmette, an area that had been devastated by flood waters unleashed by Hurricane Katrina.

The project was the brainchild of college senior Nelson Davis, who is a member of the university's Christian Campus Fellowship.

"About three years ago, I got an idea to hold a giant Easter egg hunt for the community," he said. "I started pitching the idea to others, but planned to hold the event in Atlanta. Someone had donated 20,000 plastic eggs to the cause, so it looked like it was going to move forward.

"Then, a few months ago, the Rocky Mountain Christian Church in Colorado contacted us, saying they had collected $20,000 for a project in the Gulf. They liked the egg hunt, but wanted something more tangible, more lasting," Davis said.

"That's when we came up with the plan for a playground.

Davis and fellow student Jacob Tucker, along with a dozen other students, had been making regular weekend trips to the storm-ravaged parish to work with cleanup crews. During lengthy semester breaks, they were joined by some 200 other students, who helped gut houses and shovel sludge from the streets. The campus ministry had even dubbed the effort "Geaux to the Gulf," to give it a Creole feel.

"Since we had already been working in that area on cleanup, it seemed natural to return with this park project," Tucker said.

After the funds came in, he, Davis and a few other students again made the trip to Louisiana to meet with parish officials and select a location.

"We decided on the Marietta Street Park because it's right in the middle of the community with houses surrounding it on all sides," he said. "It was a perfect location."

After returning to Atlanta, they put out a call for help from students.

"We were overwhelmed at the response," Tucker said. "We had hoped to recruit 250 and were amazed when nearly 500 signed up. At first, we thought about capping it but later decided that the more people that got to go and see how much help is needed in that area, the more hands we'd have for future projects."

He said students then organized themselves into committees to handle the details and got to work.

In the meantime, the group applied for and received a $5,000 grant from KaBOOM! to help pay for the playground equipment. The non-profit organization, dedicated to building playgrounds throughout the nation, also sent four students to a seminar to learn how to properly install the equipment.

On Friday, April 6, the students began heading to Louisiana in charter buses and vans.

Bright and early Saturday morning they split up with half of the group constructing the playground and the other half working with CrossRoads Mission on various neighborhood cleanup projects.

On Easter Sunday, some 400 neighborhood adults and children poured into the park in the afternoon for the opening-day celebration and playground dedication. In addition to an Easter egg hunt, the students provided a free barbecue for the entire neighborhood.

"It was a huge hit," Tucker said. "The place was packed the entire time. We were all tired at the day's end, but we were satisfied that we had accomplished exactly what we set out to do."

Deborah Keller, who lives near the park, said if the goal of the students was to give the community the gifts of laughter and joy, they succeeded.

"Everyone was lifted up by what they did," Keller said. "After Katrina, the surroundings were so surreal. Everything was gray and black and muddy and perfectly still. You couldn't even hear the wind blowing through the trees because every leaf was gone. But these college kids changed all that.

"After church, we went back to our house for our first Easter dinner together since the hurricane hit - which was a celebration in itself - and then we went to the park," she said. "It was so wonderful to see all the bright colors and hear the children laughing again. There couldn't have been a more appropriate day to hold this, because this project truly resurrected our entire neighborhood."

Parish Councilman Mark Madary said he, too, welcomed the students' assistance.

"As an elected official, I find myself constantly fighting for federal disaster funds to rebuild things like our water and sewer systems," he said. "The little projects, like playgrounds, are the things that bring a sense of normalcy back to our residents, but unfortunately, are the things overlooked that is, until these college students decided to get involved. We're all thankful that they were willing to give up their holiday weekend to do this for our community."

Tucker, however, said the playground project was just the beginning.

"We all feel like we've established a relationship with the people in that neighborhood, so I know that we'll be going back to work on other projects," he said. "When we go to volunteer in the future, the people there will say, 'Oh, you're those Christian kids that built our park.' And that's how we want to be known.

"Jesus tells us that we're supposed to love our neighbor as ourselves and St. Francis of Assisi said, 'Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.' I think by doing these projects, we spoke about as loud as you can get without muttering a sound."


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