Over 20 Years of Partnership: Mt. Carmel Academy

“The beauty of giving back and in teaching them that there are so many people in need, that’s what life is about. And that’s the beauty of this, when Sue says what they’re doing, to hear people’s excitement.” – Beth Ann Simno, Principal

In 1996, a group of juniors at Mt. Carmel Academy approached Sue Buras, one of the school administrators, and said they wanted to do something different for their community service requirement. Sue had just seen a commercial for Habitat for Humanity and decided to give NOAHH a call. What followed would be perhaps the longest volunteer partnership NOAHH has had with any group. Since then, Sue has led student groups for 21 years, and she has attended every build. When they started, the groups were smaller, about 10 or 15 students, only a two times a year, but as the partnership evolved, the groups grew and the frequency increased. Now, the students come five or six times a year, often with groups of 50 or more. All told, Mt. Carmel has probably brought more than 3,000 students to volunteer with NOAHH—over 24,000 volunteer hours.

“The first one we went to we dug the trenches [foundation] to build the house. They had never been around Tchoupitoulas [in the Irish Channel]. You know, the girls had never seen New Orleans East, where we go now, or Treme. They live in Uptown. They live here [in Lakeview], and they live in Metairie. It’s just a different world for them.”

Ashley Accardo is a recent Mt. Carmel graduate now studying at LSU who participated in four Habitat builds while at Mt. Carmel, as both a junior and a senior. She helped build in the America Street area, where many of her classmates had built before. Not only was the area of the city new to her, but also the impact her fellow students had had in the area opened her eyes.

“When I was a junior in high school, it was really cool to be building the frame work of a house,” Ashley said. “On the way to the site, or during breaks, people said, ‘We built that house around the corner.’ We got to see how a home affects people’s lives, on that home and in the whole neighborhood in total. It made me want to continue to be part of that and see how people grow. It opened my eyes to how much I could do myself.”

In the early years, they often worked on cleaning sites or digging foundations. This occurred often enough that it became an inside joke, but eventually other opportunities opened up on site. It improved their experiences greatly.

“It was, ‘well you’re gonna dig, but you’re also gonna put the rebar in,'” Sue said. “‘And you’re gonna clean, because you’re gonna move these posts and do things like that.’ So just the technical part of the job that they have entrusted in us has gotten more detailed and more appreciative. We don’t feel like girls. We feel like workers. And that’s what we wanna feel like.”

Nearly ten years after their partnership began, though, Hurricane Katrina brought major changes. As the affiliate grew in response to the need and the support now focused on the city, so too did the partnership with Mt. Carmel. New staff, new AmeriCorps members, and new ideas meant more students could volunteer, and new programs were soon developed with Mt. Carmel’s help.

“After the hurricane, we helped build most of the houses in Musicians’ Village–painted them, built them,” Sue said. “Things started to change. More AmeriCorps people came in. I don’t know what it was, but I think they see that we have been a mainstay. And then when they started the A Brush With Kindness [ABWK] program, we wrote the Brown Foundation grant together with Habitat. We get funding every year. It’s been a good partnership. The AmeriCorps people have been wonderful. In the end we want to help people, and that’s why we continue doing it. Whether it’s painting, or digging, or building, or cleaning. Trenches. We don’t care. We want to be accepted, which Habitat has graciously done, and we want to feel like we’re doing something worthwhile. And I think we’ve built up a reputation for ourselves. They know that when we come, we may be 75 girls, but we’re 75 girls that are gonna get the job done.”

The storm also changed the students’ perspectives. While before the storm, they often saw parts of the city they had never been to before, the experience of seeing their city in the aftermath of the storms and the subsequent flooding–and having their own homes affected–helped them see the need to give back, and the impact of their work became clearer as they saw whole communities built (and rebuilt).

Lyn Pickett, a teacher at Mt. Carmel, grew up in Montana, where his parents were very involved in Habitat. Knowing Habitat well, he joined the Mt. Carmel program after he started working there. “A lot of the students, they’re not familiar with where we serve,” he said. “To see them out there and socializing, not only with themselves but with other people in the area, the neighbors of the Habitat house, people driving by, it opens their eyes not only to what is out there and what true New Orleans is like, but to people who lost everything in Katrina.”

“I think for the girls to see the blight that happened after Katrina, it opened their eyes to a new world,” said Sue. “I mean they may have had water, a lot of them lived in Lakeview. They lost their houses. Building these new [Habitat] houses, especially Musicians’ Village, I think that changed everything. Because you saw an empty expanse of land come into these vibrant colors. People would come, if we had finished their house, they’d play music on their porch. And they just made you feel welcome. That was the turning point of everything.”

Ashley explained her motivation for joining the Habitat service program at Mt. Carmel, “I really wanted to be part of helping other people’s lives and experience what it’s like to–I never built a house or done something like that to help other people’s lives. I’ve done outdoorsy stuff, but I never hammered nails for hours on end. It helped me be aware of the need in the city for volunteers, and it helped us connect on a deeper level with other volunteers because it’s not easy. We were in search of something deeper within ourselves to give to people.”

A Brush With Kindness is a home repair program that supports homeowners in need of repairs or maintenance that they might not be able to afford or is difficult to do themselves because of disability, age, or income. Because the homes are usually owner-occupied, the ABWK partner families are often present at the home while it is being repaired. The program was started by Erin Boyd, an AmeriCorps with New Orleans Habitat who had served for several years on our construction team. She switched to help plan new programs the year she became and AmeriCorps VISTA.

“Well since my AmeriCorps VISTA role was to start ABWK and come up with funding sources as well as a volunteer base, the idea to integrate funding with the program was born,” Erin said. “I had already met the Mt. Carmel crew and Sue on new home construction sites in the past, and I knew their level of commitment to service and volunteerism. My VISTA year was my third AmeriCorps term and I was very familiar with and truly committed to service learning and its impact on the individual as well as the community. ”

“With ABWK, especially since I bring the paint brushes, everybody’s got a paint brush,” said Sue. “Everybody’s painting. Everybody’s doing their job, so they are active and integrated into the program the entire time. The first time we did ABWK, the weeds in the back yard were to here [indicating about waist high]. We cleared all the weeds, and there was a terrazzo. The lady didn’t even know there was a terrazzo patio back there, and furniture. Because the weeds were so high. That was amazing. And she was an elderly lady in a wheel chair. And she was out there. Not [working in the yard], but plugging us all along.”

Erin recalled the same project: “Oh, one project in St. Roch involved a lot of landscaping (basically the whole back yard was overgrown), and the students cleared it all. The before and after of the project was a really significant–which is why ABWK projects paired with service learning allowed for immediate results to reflect on. It gave us time to dive more into the real concrete reflections of why they should do service, how repainting or clearing overgrowth helps a homeowner and a community. Overall what I remember is lots of laughs, lots of painting and lots of pictures.”

Learning has always been part of Mt. Carmel’s experiences with Habitat, but Erin and Sue developed a service learning program to specifically address their experiences on Habitat sites. The Service Learning Program integrates lessons about social justice, the Habitat homeownership program, and the impact of affordable housing into their school work and their time on the build site.

“The next step [after starting ABWK] was to research funding sources for service learning,” said Erin. “Sue at Mt. Carmel and I connected. I would say it was a true partnership. Mt. Carmel already had a lot of service learning integrated into their school environment, but with Habitat staff support was able to make their service experience more comprehensive on our job sites.”

“The juniors take a social justice course, so we want them to put that course in action,” said Sue. “Before ABWK we started integrating the program, we did as teachers there. Then when Erin came in she started talking about service learning. I said, ‘well yeah, you can incorporate some of that into it.’ So now [the students] go from the social justice course–and the course even says, you need to put your words in action. Well now when they do Habitat, they put it into action. Some of the juniors, when they first go, don’t get it. But once Habitat does their thing, the AmeriCorps people, and then we do our thing here, then they write reflections at the end of the year. Those go to the Brown Foundation to show how they’ve gone from point A to point B with everything.”

“I remember during the breaks and before working, we were learning about how families have to work on houses, not just us,” said Ashley, explaining what she learned. “Families work on homes, too. We learned how families benefit [from affordable housing], and how it all started. It’s a great program for people around the country to be involved with. It’s so cool to see that it’s so much bigger than Mt. Carmel volunteers.”

“I truly hope that through the service learning activities the students gained a better understanding of Habitat’s mission as well as the need for affordable housing,” said Erin, describing the lessons she taught. “The bigger picture idea about how affordable housing is such a key piece in creating family stability, access to employment and improving health. There are cycles of poverty that interplay with access to resources. If you don’t have access to a safe and secure home that is in a location that allows you to get to an employment opportunity, you either are paying too much of your income towards housing (which means you don’t have money for healthy food, reliable transportation, education, etc.), you live in an unsafe place, you have to pay a lot for transportation and or spend a lot of your time getting to work when you could be going to classes, spending time with family, and cooking healthy meals. I see where you live, where you call ‘home’ as such a baseline for being able to get out of the cycle of poverty. Not only is a home for shelter, but for comfort. When people are comfortable they have room to prosper!”

One of the learning activities they participate in was inspired when two ABWK projects took place next to each other. It involved a beach ball, a marker, and a patch of lawn, and it helped the students open up about their experiences on site.

“I can remember we got two ABWK partner families that were right next to each other in Hollygrove, and we had a lot of painting to do,” said Erin. “I usually structured the day with an intro and a little activity, then we worked, then we did another activity pre-lunch and or during lunch (some interactive teamwork questionnaire or scavenger hunt), then worked and wrapped up the day with reflections. I remember the Hollygrove ABWK projects being so much fun because we had a lot of space to do the service learning activities as a whole group. Due to the space, I thought of an interactive reflection idea of tossing around a beach ball, with the different colors of the beach ball having different reflection questions written out in sharpie. You would just hit the ball up and someone would catch it and pick one of the questions to respond to. I remember this was a fun activity for the students and got everyone moving around, laughing and then not feeling as intimated to share.”

Stephanie Hartman has worked at Mt. Carmel for 26 years, and like many of the faculty at the school who become involved with Habitat, she was brought in by Sue. She noted that the game with the beach ball showed her the impact that volunteering had on the students.

“You know, because we live in this world that is ever-changing and sometimes not for the better, and it’s so touching to see them [volunteer],” Stephanie said. “Last time we played the game with the ball, and as they caught the ball and answered one of the questions, of course they’re all thrilled to be doing something and helping people, but one of [the questions] said ‘what have you learned today?’ A student said, ‘Well, when I went to bed last night before this I said I wanted to make a new friend.’ And she said, ‘I’ve done that, I’ve made many new friends.’ So it was very interesting to me.”

“It teaches so much,” Ashley said of what she learned. “It teaches us to be grateful for what we have, because not everyone as fortunate as we are. We learn so much about we can do to help others with nothing in return. It’s great to learn that as teenage girls. Habitat affected me in so many in great ways. I’m very grateful I was able to start volunteering in high school and hope to continue in adult life.”

From the beginning, most of the students did not have construction experience. While there are important lessons to learn about affordable housing, the more immediate, practical lessons were about how to build a house. Students who return often see many different phases of the house, and over the years, they’ve done just about everything there is to do on site. Sue observed some trends in what they prefer over the years.

“When they started digging the foundation–they knew how to dig, but they didn’t know how to put rebar in,” said Sue. “They didn’t know how to build the support columns with the cement and get it perfect and level it. They never knew that happened with a house. They just see a house finished. Then to put siding on. They didn’t realize that you have to have strength to hammer that siding in because it’s cement siding. Then if they’re 18, they get to use power tools. Some of them have never seen a power tool before. Habitat is very good with safety. They make sure they have the goggles on. They make sure they do everything they’re supposed to do. Especially two weeks ago, we had five girls, that’s all they did was cut to build the front of the porch. They like learning new things. They don’t like working inside so much unless it’s cold, because they’d rather be outside. They put a fence up. They mixed the cement, they dug the hole, they put the post in, they put the cement in. So Habitat has shown them how to do it from digging the foundation up.”

She also noted they tend to have preferences between new construction and ABWK repair projects. The experiences have some similarities, but the construction site often holds a greater variety of activities.

“Now, if you ask them what they like better, the girls that have done both say they like building because it’s stuff they’ve never ever ever done before,” said Sue, “but it depends on what the project is. In the beginning of the year, we have four different houses [on American Street] we worked on. The first house we helped to dig out the foundation last April. So we went that day and we finished the house. So the girls who had done it last April said, ‘we see it from beginning to end.’ And then we had some down the block that were painting. We had other girls digging foundations, and we had other girls putting up siding. So it was four areas, and four different kinds of expertise. At lunch time we switched. That’s the best component. The last time we went, last week, we had one house to paint. We put four coats of paint on. So to say what they like better, they would rather building, because it’s hands-on, and they’ve never done it. But they love painting. They just want to be involved. And to have the homeowners there, or at least communicating with them. When we went in December we painted [an ABWK project], and the lady made lunch for everybody. Well the girls almost started crying.”

Working alongside partner families always makes the experience on site better for volunteers. “It touched me so much because the girls are so enthusiastic about it,” said Stephanie. “[The staff] explain everything that we have to do, things that I’ve never done before either. And the thing that touched me the most was this young guy came up to me and said, may I work with you? And I said certainly. And I introduced myself and he did as well. When we were finished working he said, can I just say thank you, you’re helping build my house. Then I was bawling. It was very touching.”

Beyond the new experiences of building, of seeing new parts of their city, and of learning about the importance of affordable housing, they also find inspiration in seeing women like themselves serving on the build site and leading volunteers. They also learn about the AmeriCorps program, which helps staff nonprofits and faith groups around the country. AmeriCorps have served with NOAHH since before the storm, and their presence–especially after the storm–has been crucial in making our work possible. The program helps people who wish to spend a year serving with a nonprofit somewhere in the United States find the right placement. They receive an educational stipend at the end of their service, and with NOAHH, they also get added benefits such as fun local activities and, of course, affordable housing.

“They like working with women, because they can see themselves doing that,” said Sue. “And when they hear the advantages of going with AmeriCorps, and what you can get out of it, girls never knew that. They never knew AmeriCorps existed. So that’s opened their eyes that they know that this does exist in the world, and this is for volunteering, and it can happen. So I think for that, whether it’s a girl or a guy, just the message they send. I appreciate with Habitat that before they give the safety talk, they talk about Habitat, they talk about AmeriCorps, and then do safety.

“When we come there, we can see in the faces of the Habitat people that they know our people are there to work and learn. Not just to goof off or get service hours. They’re there for a purpose, because Habitat treats us that way, the girls take pride and what they do, and they work even harder. No one talks down to them. They tell them what’s expected of them and then it happens. And if the girls have a question, they give them the answer and then the girls continue.”

Mt. Carmel students also volunteer in the ReStore. ReStore volunteers help staff with placing materials on the sales floor, pricing, and sorting. The store sells donated materials, furniture, and appliances (and more) to raise funds for NOAHH’s mission, and volunteers help keep the store neat and organized, serve customers, and process donations.

“When the girls on junior retreat volunteer, it’s only for a four hour increment in the morning,” said Sue, “so they can’t go build something because they’re not there long enough. They said at the ReStore last time, they did something with granite, and they priced things. And they loved it, because they’re seeing new things, and they don’t know what they are. Some of them have never been in hardware store. They feel like they’re in a China shop. They enjoy it. It’s different.”

In their two decades (and now starting their third) of partnership, they have probably done almost everything they can with NOAHH. For all of it, Sue Buras has guided the students, coordinated with NOAHH, and swung a hammer on the build site. Without her support, this partnership would never have been.

“I love her so much,” Ashley said. “She’s so hard working, organized, dedicated to what she does. Her work in general is amazing. She gets down in the dirt. She’s hardcore. Seeing her really just put her heart into it. Her heart was so invested with Habitat and working with the people. It was cool to see her do something so passionately and to see so many girls get involved.”

“She is kind and not only passionate about, but whole-heartily committed to her students,” said Erin. “Sue is one of those teachers and mentors that people will never forget. I know that working with her I grew as a person and I will always think of her and the Mt. Carmel students as an important part of my AmeriCorps experience. Sue as well as her husband Skip were core volunteers, through and through, and well known by the Habitat staff and other volunteers. And the Mt. Carmel students were always a highlight for house leaders as they are good workers!”

Sue’s husband Skip started volunteering about ten years after the partnership began. Having retired, he now helps out at the school, and he joins the students when they volunteer. He supports the students’ hard work, but he jokes that he only does a few things on site.

“Once he’s there and helping the girls, it becomes a joke,“ said Sue. “They go, ‘Skip what do you do at Habitat?’ He goes, ‘I move ladders. I move ladders and I pour paint. Those are the only things I really do.’ One time we were in the Carrollton area, we built the frame for the house. We had a contest. Half the girls did it on this side, and the other half the girls did it on this side. I think we had about 75 girls. On Skip’s side, all he did was take nails out. Because it’s hard to nail those big nails. On the other side we had the college-bound pitcher of the softball team. So her side built maybe 30 frames, the other side built maybe ten. So that’s his job. He says ‘I take nails out, and I move ladders.'”

Ashley shared a different side of him, “One of my favorite memories on site was working with two really good friends, painting a house and knowing it’s a small thing that was gonna help someone else so much more than we know. On that same trip, we were nailing boards on the porch, and we heard an ice cream truck. There were 10 to 15 of us, and Mr. Skip treated us to ice cream. With a smaller group, it was more intimate. It was a special moment, and we all had a break for ice cream.”

Sue’s unique position as a 21-year volunteer has given her the long-term perspective to see the impact of decades of hard work through Habitat–on New Orleans and on her students.

“When I go to Musicians’ Village, and I go there when we have friends come in town, I feel great pride that I can say that most of these houses here we have had some part in doing,” Sue said. “I also feel that way when I go to America Street, and I see what’s happened in America Street. But I think the area that makes you the proudest is girls that graduate from here and go on to college, and they volunteer with Habitat. In fact a girl in Colorado is the Habitat director for her university because of what she learned at Mt. Carmel. So it makes me feel great that they take what they learn here and they don’t just put it by the wayside. They use it in years to come. I’ve had many alums come back and volunteer with Habitat because of that. So for me, not only building the houses and seeing the difference in the streets, in what they look like, and seeing the smiles on the faces of all the people we help, but seeing what happens to our girls and what they bring back with them.”

The impact of Mt. Carmel’s dedication cannot be measured only in homes built or volunteer hours. Both for the students and for the partner families, the students’ hard work has an impact that lasts for a lifetime. NOAHH is proud to be a long-time partner with Mt. Carmel and looks forward to many more.