NOAHH in the Classroom

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In 2013, NOAHH partnered with Metairie Park Country Day and the Brown Foundation to create a pilot service learning program that could possibly expand to other schools to help educate students on the Habitat program, poverty housing, and the specific needs of the New Orleans community. The program brings NOAHH staff to the classroom to teach the students directly, and it brings the students to the work site to learn first hand about Habitat. On Saturday, September 20, this year’s class participated in their first build day, working on ABWK sites in Central City. They helped paint and removed vines from two homes and met with the homeowners, Schelita Butler and Viola Mitchell.

Mitchell grew up in old houses with original architectural features, so her current home, with its old structure, is much loved. It’s a home where she raised her granddaughter, and though she had to evacuate during Hurricane Katrina, the home survived the worst of the storm without flooding. Butler lives not far from Mitchell, and her home also saw some damage from the storm, all of which had been repaired. She works as a caregiver with Courteous Care, and she lives with her son.

During the volunteer day, Butler surprised the volunteers with a lunch of red beans with pig tails, smoked sausage, and rice to express her gratitude.

“I figured I should give back. It was a blessing to me, and this was how I blessed them back,” she said. “I couldn’t bless them moneywise, but I could give them lunch.”

She worked alongside the volunteers as they painted her home and replaced a gate. Like with the NOAHH homeownership program, all ABWK partner families are required to work sweat equity hours, learning first hand about home repair and maintenance.

What the students have learned, both this year and during last year’s classes, was about the issues the area faces that come from blight. A major part of the program is a community tour that shows the students the effects of blight and substandard housing throughout the city, with a focus on the efforts to fight those problems, including how NOAHH’s homeownership, ABWK, and HUGs programs improve the city, the city’s own improvements, and other organizations’ work. They also work on a budgeting simulation that teaches them about the difficult decisions that have to be made by hard working New Orleanians. These teach them about the limitations of tight budgets and the problems some face in accessing basic needs.

“It was interesting to look at the city in a different way,” one student said. “We drive through these neighborhoods all the time, but don’t usually think about amount of green space or nearby food, even if we are aware of blight.”

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They also learned about the long-term effects of the Habitat program on communities from NOAHH executive director Jim Pate. These and other aspects of the classes give the students an idea of the causes of and problems created by poverty and poverty housing. With this perspective, the students come to understand the social justice aspects of the NOAHH program.

Social justice is enabling people to lead better lives and contribute more to their communities. NOAHH contrasts this with charity, a laudable enterprise in which help is given freely, by describing our program as “a hand up, not a hand out.” Because the homeownership program at NOAHH provides our partner families with the skills and opportunity to buy a home when they might not otherwise be able to, and because homeownership addresses multiple issues, including poverty, crime, education, and family togetherness, on economic, cultural, and social levels, the program is clearly a matter of social justice.

The program’s methods ensure the students will learn leadership and teamwork skills and critical thinking while also gaining insights into current issues. The goals of the service learning program are not just to teach about the benefits of the Habitat program, but also to bring the skills they are learning to bear on those issues. By helping students understand the complexities of poverty housing and blight, NOAHH seeks to instill a respect for and advocacy of social justice and the fight against poverty housing in generations to come, continuing our commitment to making it a matter of conscience, and fostering the growth of these students into civically engaged citizens.”