'You're doing your best for others'
SLIDELL, La. – In his past few weeks in Slidell, La., John Kirkpatrick of Champaign has learned how to jack up a travel trailer on cinder blocks, level it off and hook up the plumbing.
Thanks to the hard work of Kirkpatrick and other volunteers, a woman named Zelda now has decent living space.
"You spend a little bit of time doing simple things like that, and it really has an impact on people's everyday lives," Kirkpatrick said. "Hopefully we've made life a lot more simple for her."
While volunteering in the New Orleans area during the past month, Kirkpatrick has learned new skills, made new friends, encountered a range of emotions from residents – from extreme gratitude to resentment – dealt with bureaucratic delays and rediscovered the need to adapt to changing situations.
It's been an awful lot like teaching middle school.
Kirkpatrick is on a one-year leave of absence from his job teaching social studies at Edison Middle School in Champaign. He decided to spend the year in Slidell, northeast of New Orleans, helping those hit by Hurricane Katrina, after volunteering last year during his winter break from school.
A year after Katrina, there are some areas with a lot of businesses up and running, and other areas where entire neighborhoods have vanished, Kirkpatrick said. He sees trailers everywhere. The main difference from when Kirkpatrick was in Slidell last winter is the storm debris has been cleared.
"I'm noticing middle school teaching seems be a general metaphor for life," Kirkpatrick said.
"I expected when I came down to pretty much meet all different types of things," he continued. "I believe I'm serving God and I'm serving others. That in itself is a reward. But also, I expected ... to meet adversity, and how you respond to it challenges you.
"I found some people are tremendously appreciative of (our work) and are effusive with thanks. Other people appreciate it but don't make a big deal out of things. Some people, something happens and they become resentful.
"I guess it's the same thing as a teacher," he said. "You're doing your best for others, and you're going to get completely different responses from different people a lot of times."
Even so, Kirkpatrick acknowledges being hurt when a woman he helped during his winter break became upset with him and other workers after learning her home of 60 years, built by her father, could not be salvaged.
"Her anger got addressed towards us, instead of just recognizing the storm cost a lot of things," he said.
Also frustrating for Kirkpatrick is the bureaucracy and difficulty getting answers. For example, work on Zelda's trailer was delayed until a plumber could be found to do an inspection.
"Just like in the world of education, to get anything done you need to get approval from here and approval from there," he said.
"I've had to stop myself several times from getting impatient. We're learning this by doing," he continued.
He said waiting on someone else to figure out the next step in a project can be frustrating, and if he has to stop work because of rain, he'll ask himself if he is being wasteful of his time.
"It's just one of the things you learn to deal with," he said.
He's also learned long hair and a beard are not conducive to doing physical labor in a hot, muggy climate. Kirkpatrick's hair was at his shoulder blades when he arrived in Louisiana, and he intended to grow it longer to donate to Locks of Love, an organization that uses donated hair to make wigs for cancer patients.
But between the heat and debris falling on him as he worked, he decided he had to cut it. He donated the hair and shaved his beard.
In spite of some negative experiences, Kirkpatrick has found most people are willing to help others out and most residents are grateful for the help they've received. He said they make the work a joy.
He's also enjoyed working with other volunteer crews.
"You get to meet a lot of people from all over," he said. "Getting out and doing work together is something that always brings people together. Everybody's got the same focus. It's very positive."
And he appreciates spending time with family. He has two brothers, Robert and Danny, who volunteered with him last December, then returned in January and are still in Slidell. A sister, Emily, recently went home after helping out for a couple of weeks.
"It's not always hunky-dory. We get on each other's nerves a little bit, but we've had some great conversations," Kirkpatrick said. "One of the things I've appreciated is not only getting to (work with them) but seeing other people's reactions to them. Emily was everybody's best friend when she got down here. ... (It's) real nice to hear (appreciative) comments about them from other people. We've all really enjoyed the opportunity to (volunteer). I'm thankful I've gotten this opportunity."