Note: Valisa Higman is a Vail resident who helped form a new nonprofit to feed victims of Hurricane Katrina.NEW ORLEANS - We have started tearing down the Made With Love Cafe and Grill. The heat and the bugs have made it not only uncomfortable, but unhealthy to stay here, and the needs of St. Bernard Parish are changing, so we must evolve with them. We will be opening a larger indoor feeding operation to serve not only residents, but also thousands of volunteers coming down with agencies such as Habitat for Humanity and AmeriCorps. This is a time of transition, and we are all working long hours trying to start this new kitchen as well as a second kitchen south of here in the devastated Plaquemines Parish.
I am leaving here with the feeling that we have done a lot of good, and that the parish has reached a new stage in recovery, where rebuilding is becoming more of a focus. Though the clean-up effort is slow, I have been here long enough to see changes. For one, the earth has come back to life. Sunflowers and lilies bloom amidst the rubble, and grass has begun to cover the ugly scars of wind and flood. I remember New Orleans as I first saw it in November. I could only compare it to a skeleton. Buildings lay shattered, splintered beams protruding like broken bones. The structures that still stood were scarred by dirty stripes indicating the water levels during the floods, and their windows gaped like empty eye-sockets. You got the feeling that you could play Big Bad Wolf and knock the whole block down with a breath, and it seemed that the residents of St. Bernard's were not returning to rebuild their old homes, but rather to finish the destruction wrought by Katrina and to start over. Leaves had been ripped from tree-limbs, and branches lay strewn in yards and medians.
Though many buildings still stand skeletal against the skyline, you see activity in the neighborhoods. I can see a family cleaning their home across the canal from my tent. They have new windows, and last night I watched them pressure wash the flood scum from the bricks.
Volunteers traipse about in donated clothing: a blue prom dress from the 80s, a floor length red robe, a pair of reindeer antlers, or a princess cap. We smile a lot, and say lots of funny things. We call them brother or sister, and hug them when they are feeling down.A volunteer here, along with some residents, has made headway on plans for a community center that will become a new gathering place for the residents as they plan the details of rebuilding their homes.I feel confident that our new kitchen and the community center will be able to fill a lot of needs in the community, but I also know that this little tent city, the "Hippie Camp," is going to be sorely missed. They have come to rely on us not only for food, but entertainment. And the food was good too, don't get me wrong. They will definitely miss the food. We called this the Made with Love Café for good reason. There was a ton of love pouring out of every single vegetable chopper, wok and noodle boiler in the kitchen as well as from the servers, inventory crew, distribution team, and every single person that has called this concrete slab "home." There have been sunflower seeds in the salad, chocolate chips in the pancakes, and all sorts of home-made gravies and sauces. I'm going to miss the food.
I am also going to miss all the amazing people who have taken time out of their lives to make this project a success - six months living and feeding out of tents in a disaster zone; for so long we just waited for everything to fall apart, and now it looks like we made it. No one took our refrigerator trucks away, or the port-a-potties. We always had enough volunteers, enough food, enough funds. Sure, we had to get creative sometimes, but that only makes this place more special. I am also taking a lot away with me. The skills I have learned and the friends I have made volunteering here will be with me long after I leave the parish. I have also gained in strength and understanding - gifts from the residents here who display such resilience and optimism. In the face of such loss, I have been given the chance to see what really matters in people's lives.It makes me appreciate the sacred treasures of life: family, friends, and healthy food.
Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado