Reflection: Summer of Service

I suppose it's finally time for me to reflect back upon the amazing time I spent in my 3rd round project called Summer of Service. Just a reminder, SOS is an AmeriCorps NCCC sponsored 4 week service program for teens ages 14-17 from the New Orleans area. We spent a week in various activities and trainings, and the following 3 weeks performing good works with organizations throughout NOLA, and also plenty of time in fun activities and informative classes. My job was to mentor a large group of teens, ensure their time would be well-spent, and keep them engaged.

Reflecting back on this overwhelming experience is not easy. So much happened in such little time that it's hard to really summarize the HUGE event. 101 teens, 30 crew leaders, 2 group leaders, 2 unit leaders, and many staff people really made this experience what it was. Alright, so we had tons of people but we were broken down into 2 units (Blues and Jazz) plus smaller teams (each with 3 crew leaders) in which we functioned during our work days, and also which acted as a tracking tool to ensure the safety and well-being of the many participants. My team (go BLUES 4!) was the odd one out, given 11 participants at the beginning and somehow I think this should have been a signal of the stress to come. :)

Quick refresher of actual happenings:

Week 1.

Teens arrive, chaos ensues. We ALL lived together in one dormitory building on the beautiful campus of Dillard University.

Our daytime activities of week one included orientation, helping with a New Orleans city assisted evacuation plan, working one day at our first work site, participating in a military Low-Ropes course, and seeing an I-MAX movie on the weekend. We had intended to see Hurricane On the Bayou but because of our late arrival ended up viewing Sea Monsters 3D: A Prehistoric Adventure. It was really cool! ... during the parts I was awake.

And how dare I forget the unforgettable, catastrophic CAMPING adventure in St. Bernard Parish on Friday night? This is probably one of my fondest memories from all of SOS! Imagine this: The entire Blues unit (51 teens, 13 crew leaders, 1 group leader, 1 staff member) all load into vans and drive to a campsite for some "fun." Fun it was! I don't think there were many teens in this group that had ever been camping before. When we got there the tents were already set up, so we ate some simple box dinners under the pavilion and played games like football, soccer and ultimate frisbee out on the grassy fields. We got all sweaty, ran out of bug spray and one young man enticed armadillos, raccoons, and rabbits with flamin' hot Cheetos. Hilarious! As night fell we set up a projector and speakers and showed a movie on a hanging bed sheet. We also started a couple small fires and I helped a bunch of excited kids make their first messy S'Mores, and gave out Starbursts to roast, too! And before we knew the time had arrived, we were sending them off to their tents to try and catch some sleep before the morning sun would wake us all.

How foolish! After the crew leaders & staff all emerged from the van where we'd had a quick meeting and crossed that bridge back to where the tents were, we found complete anarchy-- and all our participants in terrible distress. The heat and humidity that night were incredible, and after shoving 4-6 teens into each tent it only got worse. Even the best behaved kids were crying for water and cool air and refusing to stay inside their "lodging". Some accused us of racial discrimination ("Miss C, you know black people can't handle the heat like whites), some made sad comments about being stuck in those tents being similar to staying inside the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina, some just asked if they could take off their clothes, and others simply tried to rationalize. We knew it was too hot to keep them there, for God's sake, there were even nose bleeds! We all laugh now (even the Participants)... but it was pretty pathetic then. I even remember being offered money to bring someone a cold drink before someone else. I'm not sure any of them will EVER go camping again.

At 12:30 AM we packed up our belongings, loaded into the vans, and drove back to Dillard University. Ha!

Every week during SOS was eventful, but there was no gradual ease into the havoc. By the end of week 1 two of my participants & their big attitudes had gotten them pulled off the work site and into trouble with staff members, and both of my co-crew leaders had left the program, in fact the only 2 to leave the program. Emily resigned Friday for personal reasons (the emotional build-up to her resignation impacted the entire team), and Chris was asked to leave the program on Friday as well because of health reasons. What this resulted in was an extraordinary amount of stress for me-- I was alone with my team from the arrival on our camping trip and on through the weekend-- and too much responsibility for one to handle alone. The participants were supportive, and I'm glad they bonded together with me during the rough times to help us all out.

Of course, any reasonable group of teens would probably take advantage of a situation where only one adult is present, and the following morning one guy on the team hit a girl on the team and sent her to the hospital, and another participant attempted to throw a table at the group in an angry outburst. I was completely overwhelmed, asking for help, and not getting much for answers. I finally broke down after having a different participant tell me what a terrible person I was at brunch, and I demanded help from staff and took an hour for myself. I sat in a bathroom stall for a while, cried until my tears were dry, found some composure and thanked the girls on my team for their support when they came looking for me. They were nothing less than angels for nearly the entire program.
Keeping in mind that in addition to a normal work schedule we had to drag teens out of bed for early morning PT at 5:45 AM, 5 days a week, plan and execute evening activities, plus rotating crew leader ALL-NIGHT duty to patrol halls and rooms, and the fact that I pulled extra shifts because of losing crew leaders, I commend myself for working 119.5 hours in the first 7 days of the program.

Week 2.

On Sunday two new crew leaders joined our Blues 4 team, Katie and Chris. They were great, coming in on only 5 hours notice without the training the rest of us had, and jumping into the fun of it all. Monday we explored the Riverwalk downtown...

...and did team building exercisers/ice breakers, and Tuesday through Friday we worked at our first sponsoring organization ARC of Greater New Orleans. ARC devotes their time and resources to improving the lives of adults with disabilities, and one of the ways they raise money to fund their program is by gathering donations of used Mardi Gras beads, and having volunteers & clients sort them and bag them for resale. We sorted 6 giant boxes of beads in our time at ARC, and based on the calculation that each box weighs about 800 pounds, we can safely say we sorted about 4,500 pounds of used Mardi Gras beads! Thankfully we had hand sanitizer.

Oh, I can't forget the movie Hancock we went to see on the weekend (I slept soundly through the entire film in a movie theater seat), and HIV/AIDS class during the week. Such an important topic, and so well covered by the community member they brought in to speak about it.

At the end of week 2 we lost two participants, both were transferred to other teams within the program. One for discipline issues and the other for health reasons.

Week 3.

Green Light New Orleans
! Green Light is possibly my most favorite organization I've encountered in all of my time as a corps members in NCCC. Their mission is to reduce the use of energy in people's homes throughout New Orleans by replacing their incandescent light bulbs with energy efficient fluorescent bulbs. The creator of Green Light, Andy, is a musician who wanted to reduce the environmental impact his band was having while touring Europe, thus this non-profit group was born. In the afternoons each day for a week we went to scheduled homes whose owners had applied for the program and we installed light bulbs. It might sound a bit monotonous, but this was an amazing way to see the city from the realest perspective-- the locals! The teens really enjoyed getting positive feedback from their own community members and the homeowners were almost always very grateful for our work. We were offered food, cold drinks, and great tour of the city every day, and hours of worthwhile conversation.

The mornings of those days were a bit harder since while working with Lakewood Beacon of Hope we were usually clearing overgrown brush from blighted properties-- the sad remnants of vacant homes (some) left ruined by the hurricanes and floods. It was hot and we were pulling weeds for 3 hours straight. We did have a high day for our team on Monday of the second week. Our team split into two groups and one went to help a woman scramble to get her final belongings out of the home she lived in prior to the storms. Her house was scheduled for demolition, and because of a suicide in the family over the weekend and the sad fact her car wouldn't start Monday morning, she hadn't a chance to remove the last of her goods. Our teens helped a woman in a state of distress. They felt valuable. The other group of us helped a different woman with the painting of her rebuilt home that had been extensively damaged by the floods after the storms. The teens told me this is the kind of work they wanted to be involved in-- directly helping people in need.

On one evening I taught an intro to wildland firefighting class to a group of participants. What a success! I showed a slide show, went over some basics related to fire gear and deployments, and then we had some physical fitness challenges. Robert knocked the socks off of everyone else by hold the plank position for 5 minutes and 19 seconds. His core is like a rock! We also had a dance party that weekend which was well received by the teens.

At the end of week 3 we lost two more participants. One young man was kicked out of the program for smoking pot in his room, and a young lady was sent home for sneaking out of the dorms. I had a small pity party this weekend; it was hard watching them be sent home when I knew how much they really wanted and need to be there. My emotions were running high and I still doubt that all facts were out on the table. I hated that threats were made and money hung over people's heads to get confessions. I'm still torn up over this.

Week 4.

Ah, the final week. Our group was lucky and we worked our final days with the Audubon Zoo, spending our mornings pulling invasive vines out of trees...

...and the afternoons doing cool activities around the zoo. We cleaned out a tiger habitat, touched the elephants, salted the water tank for sea lions, and toured the many exhibits of the zoos many times.

The end of it all came so quickly. On my second to last day I reflected back upon the previous 4 weeks and thought to myself "These were the longest 4 weeks of my life." I meant every word, but in retrospect those were the longest and fastest days of my life. Our schedules were jam packed and we hated each other and loved each other and then had to say goodbye.

Graduation was touching. Most of the participants made it through the program-- I think our retention rate was 94%. A few participants spoke about their time here, and then BAM. I cried as I hugged participants for the last time and parents and siblings laughed at me, and one teen gave me a big wet kiss on the cheek and told me to stop my blubbering. For some of them, the odds are against them. Gangs, drugs, death, and crime are all normal parts of life and they succeed. They are wonderful people and I loved working with them, and I look forward to seeing where they go. I miss them already.

Finally: How high can you wear your pants? Most of the male participants in SOS sagged their pants, which is against uniform policy. So we did the opposite. Can anyone say front butt?! :)


  1. Mandy Rudd?! Is that seriously you?! Wow- how are you?! Okay so first of all you are so beautiful! And second, you are an awesome writer- you need to write a book! How fun that you are doing so many things and traveling everywhere- fun to see your blog

  2. You have such detail in your writings. Your adventures have taken you, and lead you into such a "giving" life. It truly inspires me to think of how affective a life can transpire to be.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts