Finding man who touched siblings' lives makes their trip

Doug Miller

July 14, 2011

They call him Sarge.

He and some of his relatives live on the same block in the part of New Orleans called Uptown, although the way New Orleanians reckon uptown and downtown is different from the way they do it in most cities. In the Big Easy, "uptown" and "downtown" essentially mean upstream and downstream, where the respective neighborhoods are in relation to the Mississippi as it snakes through the city on its way to the sea.

In the spring of 2007, a year and a half after the catastrophe called Katrina had flooded 80 percent of the city, Sarge was still trying to rebuild his home at the corner of South Liberty and Cadiz (they pronounce it KAY-dis) streets, still struggling to hold his neighborhood together amid the exodus that was decimating working-class neighborhoods all over New Orleans.

That was when my daughter Hannah and several of her friends met him. The youth group from our church, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, spent their spring break gutting houses rendered uninhabitable. Sarge's was one of them.

Watching this indominatable man bolster his neighbors even as his own home lay in shambles left a deep impression on these kids from suburbia, and they returned home with stories of hope and a new perspective.

I'm an advisor to this year's youth group, which includes Hannah's younger sister, Julia. When this bunch elected to make New Orleans their service trip (in other years the teens have worked in Appalachia and New York), I knew I wanted to go this time. The city's renown in both the culinary and musical arts put New Orleans on my bucket list.

I'd love to go back someday, but it next time it definitely won't be in late June/early July. If you think it's been hot and humid here lately, well, it's all relative.

The work was a little different for this group. Nearly six years after Katrina, there's still plenty of rebuilding to do in New Orleans, but the extraction of rusted nails and moldy drywall is mostly done. For the actual reconstruction you need skilled volunteers, and except for one adult chaperone, we didn't have that.

So instead the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice, one of the organizations coordinating volunteer efforts, dispatched us to three different projects aimed at a less tangible but no less important part of the rebuilding effort: improving quality of life in a city that's been through the ringer..

Three of the five days we spent digging up rocky soil and replacing it with fertile soil at Joseph S. Clark High School, in the Treme neighborhood. The charter organization now in charge at the embattled school is engineering a facelift with both image-oriented and practical implications. The barbed-wire-topped chain-link fence surrounding the school will go, and the new entrance will include a large herb garden to be used in the school's culinary program.

We spent one day cleaning up recent flood damage at an outdoor cultural exhibit in Algiers. On another, we had four different teams going into homes across the city replacing incandescent bulbs with energy-saving compact flourescent ones for a nonprofit effort called Green Light New Orleans.

Throughout the week, Nick Clay, who just graduated from River Hill High, was intent on looking up Sarge. Nick's sister, Alexa, was part of the 2007 group, along with Hannah and two other older siblings of kids in the 2011 contingent. On the day we were to return home, we still didn't have an address. Calls to the number we had for Sarge had gone unanswered, and calls and texts to folks here had given us only that corner of South Liberty and Cadiz. So we just started knocking on doors.

When we found Sarge, Nick was beaming. Standing on Sarge's stoop, he began, "Four years ago…"

"I know who you are," interrupted a grinning Sarge. "Come on in."

Twenty of us crammed a now cozy front room, joining Sarge, his daughter, his nephew and several of his paintings. The place buzzed. We were part of a reunion of people who had never met.

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