This past August, a group of 11 teens and three leaders (the author was one) from Ferndale Bible Church, in Peterborough, Ont., chose to go beyond the headlines. They travelled to New Orleans to work with Habitat for Humanity and worked, one nail at a time, to help alleviate the problems in one of North America's most troubled cities.
The group was assigned to work in St. Bernard Parish, an area that had been hit very hard by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The morning drive wound through neighbourhoods that had been utterly devastated by the storm, and have changed little in the past two years. For mile after mile, through the infamous Ninth Ward, then St. Bernard, they passed homes, shopping centres, even hulking supermarkets and department stores that remained dark, boarded up, hollowed out. "I was really astonished at the lack of progress," says Nathan Dinnick, 16. Amidst such devastation, it was hard to imagine that the teens would make much of a difference.
But they did. When the group arrived, the new Habitat house had no roof, and its walls were a mere skeleton of studs. The tasks laid out involved nailing up particleboard walls, putting up wooden trusses for the roof, then cloaking the house in a protective wrap. The August heat was intense, some days peaking between 40 and 50 degrees (with the humidity), but the teens ploughed on through it all without complaint. In just a few days, the house took shape, and by Friday, it was possible to imagine that a family would one day live in it.
The group underwent a transformation, too. "On the first day, I was terrified on the ladder. Today, I spent the whole day on ladders, in the rafters, on the roof," says Amanda Bronson, 17. And from a collection of individuals emerged a team: everyone became dependent on one another. But perhaps more importantly, a bunch of kids actually became providers of shelter; these teens literally put a roof over someone else's head.
"When we first got here, this house didn't look like much. But now, look — it has walls and a roof," observes Nathan. Asked what she's most proud of, Niki Hogle, 16, simply points at the house and says, "That." Others around her nod in agreement. "When we first got here, I just wanted to sit in the van with the air conditioning on," she says. "But my perspective changed as the week went on. We all gained a lot of respect for each other. Today, I was sitting in the rafters hammering 3Â½ inch nails. I know I'm going to look back at this and say, “that was amazing.'"