Georgetown Prep Volunteer Patrick Boyland Reflects on Ten Years of Service
Every year for the last ten years, Georgetown Prep students have taken time out of their summer break to join NOAHH on site in the heat and humidity. Though the details vary with each class, the students are required to spend a portion of their senior year doing community service, and different service trips are available to reach student. Patrick Boyland chose to come to New Orleans in 2006 simply because it was a new place to see and experience, but what he found when he arrived so moved him that he has continued to volunteer every year, joining Georgetown Prep students as an alumni and chaperone in the years since he graduated.
“I felt one week just wasn’t enough,” he said. “I fell in love with the city that very first year. The people I met, and stories I heard, I knew that I had to come back. Each year it kept building. So when I heard planning had begun I would speak with [Georgetown Prep faculty members] Ben Williams and Don Cheeseman to ask them if I would be able to return with them for another year. Luckily, they never turned me away, and my summer schedules always allowed me a week in June to travel back to New Orleans. It has become increasingly difficult over the past couple years with starting a career and life after college, but I feel that it is something I need to do. For my love for the city of New Orleans, the pull of a new adventure, and for the friendships I have built over all these years.”
On his first trip, it had been less than a year since the storms and flooding. Damage to the streets left large potholes and other issues (though any local will tell you they had their share of potholes even before), and almost all of the street signs were missing.
“A lot of what I saw the very first year have stuck with me to this day,” he said. “From every inch of space beneath the highways being fenced off and filled with cars that had been left behind, portable stop signs at intersections if you were lucky, roads that felt like roller coasters driving down.”
His visit brought him to the Lower Ninth Ward, where the flooding carried a barge into the neighborhood. The barge and the floodwaters caused major damage to almost every building there.
“In the Lower Ninth, I saw homes that had been washed away, blocks from where they originally sat, stopped only because they happened to hit a phone pole.” He continued, “Cars underneath houses. Cars sitting on fences. But most of all, the complete silence. That first year walking through the Lower Ninth Ward the only sounds we could hear were created by us. If we stood still, we couldn’t hear a thing. There were no birds, or insects, or any other noisemaker. It was an eerie experience.”
The experience left him humbled, even as they witnessed signs of the recovery, and changed his perspective.
“I had completely underestimated what I was going to see,” he said. “Before the trip I was just excited to travel with my friends for a week to a new city and to do some construction. Then we went on a tour of the city. As I mentioned, it left quite the impression on me. There was no way I could have predicted the amount of destruction I would see that first year. We passed the Super Dome every day to and from work, and every day we would watch the tiny shadows of workers walking across the plywood roof and they repaired it.
“It also seemed like an impossible task at that point. One thing that I struggled with that very first year, and many years after that, was trying to figure out how to tell people about my experience. I’ll admit I’m struggling a bit now. I had seen and experienced so many unbelievable things that there was no way to describe them properly for others to understand. Pictures did a better job, and helped with my descriptions, but still it wasn’t the same. As a 17 year old, how could I explain to people what it is like to walk through a neighborhood in complete silence with the exception of my own footsteps?”
Despite (or because) of the monumental difficulty he perceived, he continued volunteering every year. Coming for a week or so at a time, he saw the steady recovery in brief windows, allowing him to note the changes over time that might not have been evident to those living it. Sometimes, he saw major milestones, but other things he noticed were things only longtime volunteers and locals would fully appreciate.
“In ten years I have seen a lot,” he said. “The Super Dome is repaired, and the Saints return[ed] for true home games. The trolley cars returning. Streets being flattened. Lights returning to intersections. Street signs! We can finally navigate our way through the city without guesswork. Over the years, I have seen countless houses return, whether that is from new construction or refurbishing. Now when I come back, I see a whole new city. Rebuilt and bustling again. It is encouraging and shows how much progress has been made over the past 10 years. At the same time, every year we start the trip off with giving the boys a tour of the city. On that tour, I see all the progress that has been made as we revisit houses that we’ve worked on over the year, but I still see a lot of work left.
“Something we noted this past June while in New Orleans was that there is a brand new fire department house in the Lower 9th. There are new sidewalks all throughout the Lower Ninth, and there are new schools everywhere… These are things that most people just expect to see when driving through any given city, but for Ben and me these were huge leaps forward. It has been ten years since Katrina, and just now we’re seeing schools in large numbers and infrastructure returning. These are great symbols of progress that have been made over the years, and it shows that this isn’t an impossible task.”
Photo credit: Patrick Boyland
Over the years, Boyland has grown from a student to a teacher, showing the Georgetown Prep students that he now chaperones what he’s learned as a volunteer and what he’s learned about the city.
“My goal is to help provide the best possible experience for the boys that I can,” he said. “But the stakes are the exact same as ten years ago. We are building a home for someone. Over the years we have built a reputation with Habitat, and we will keep that reputation alive. As a classmate of mine who went on the 2006 trip with me said, ‘Good enough isn’t good enough. I am building someone’s home. I need to do better than what I would deem acceptable for myself.'”
By mentoring the new students every year, he is passing on a legacy. His own mentor, Ben Williams, is the school’s faculty sponsor for the trip, and the chance to continue working with Williams is a large part of why Boyland has returned for a decade’s worth of trips.
“He was my English teacher multiple times during my time at Georgetown Prep, and over the years we have become close friends,” Boyland said of Williams. “I can still remember the first time he told me to call him Ben rather than Mr. Williams. We have done these trips together since the beginning, and every year he and I end up working on a project together which normally involves power tools, cutting boards, and lots of math which is always a scary thing considering we’re both English majors. I always look forward to spending time with Ben and catching up with everything that has happened in our lives over the years. This trip is my favorite part of every year, without a doubt, and I hope to continue the tradition for as long as possible.”