Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine “Community Interest” April 2009.
Napa Teens Help Rebuild New Orleans
By Louisa Hufstader
For the third year in a row, a group of Napa teenagers and their chaperones will spend this month’s spring break in a poverty-stricken New Orleans neighborhood, helping to restore buildings damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“I’m really excited to go back this year,” says Connor Bachman, a 15 year old sophomore from Vintage High School who spent a week last year painting the house of an elderly woman named Sister Macmillan.
Sister Macmillan is the organist for Morris Brown AME (African Methodist Episcopalian) Church in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans’ Seventh Ward, where much of the destruction from Katrina’s fury has yet to be repaired. Napan, Simon Biasell, director of youth ministries for First Presbyterian Church, has forged an enduring relationship with the Morris Brown community, led by its senior pastor, Rev. Leona Fisher.
It all began with a phone call: As Biasell searched for a New Orleans neighborhood that could use assistance in rebuilding after the storm, he cold-called a series of AME pastors to volunteer his church’s youth group as a labor force.
Fisher was the first to welcome his offer (once he convinced her it wasn’t a scam) “I told her I had a group of students, and I asked if there were people in her church who needed help or if the church itself needed rebuilding,” Biasell said. She said, “they definitely did.”
The small church had just purchased a community center when the storm and flooding hit, rendering the building unusable. Losing the center was a major blow to the church’s plans to provide a safe place for children and seniors in the low-income, high-crime area.
Determined to replace it, Biasell and his youth group spent their 2007 and 2008 spring breaks gutting the mold-infested building. They also helped repair the homes of residents like Macmillan, though Fisher’s house is still uninhabitable: More than three years after Katrina, the pastor is still sleeping in her church.
“I think this year Pastor Fisher will finally let us work on her house,” says Pete May, a Napa dermatologist who will accompany his two sons on the New Orleans. But, he said, “the main thing is to finish the community center.”
The 26 students and 10 adults who will make the trip this year will once again sleep in the church and spend their days working in the community. They are collecting donations for the building supplies they’ll need and paying their own way.
A January benefit concert featuring some of the Napa Valley’s top, classically-trained teen musicians sold out the Napa Valley Opera House and included impassioned testimony from volunteers like Michaela Lambert, a 16-year-old junior at Napa High School.
Lambert described the Bywater neighborhood in stark terms: “Dogs still roam the streets, looking for food,” she said. “Debris is still piled high, sometimes for blocks.” But she also called it “the home of the people I love.”
The concert’s keynote speaker was Pastor Fisher, in her second visit to Napa since the youth group began its annual trips to her community. She spoke simply, but with conviction, as she thanked the young performers and their audience for supporting the rebuilding work.
“My soul has been watered tonight,” she said. “Words cannot express what I feel. I’ve seen this group rebuild the lives of children and give hope to a community that had lost hope.”
This year’s New Orleans trip will take place the week of March 21, and Biasell is still seeking tax-deductible contributions for building supplies: The concert raised close to $25,000, but the group needs $30,000 to get the job done. To donate, make checks payable to First Presbyterian, Napa, with “New Orleans” in the subject line, and mail to Simon Biasell, First Presbyterian Church, 1333 Third St., Napa, CA 94559.