Revelations column: One day we'll all make a difference

On the drive home from New Orleans last Saturday - saddened to be leaving one of my favorite cities so soon - I reached in the back seat of my friend Kayla's car, and pulled her MacBook onto my lap.

"Let's watch the documentary you were telling me about on Hurricane Katrina. You want to?" I asked.

We were both eager, I guess, to see visuals of the city we were leaving behind in the rear view mirror. The town has major personality, and Kayla and I were already Nawlins'-sick.

We plugged in the portable WiFi, and started watching "Trouble the Water," a documentary following the stories of Hurricane Katrina victims, and how their lives were forever changed.

As Kayla and I drove home, the documentary streamed from the computer. For two hours, we watched footage of the storm's devastation in the Lower Ninth Ward and surrounding areas, before and after the hurricane made landfall.

The movie follows a married couple from the area - Kimberly and Scott, a pair of self-professed "hustlers." Before the storm hit, they decided to video their experience, unaware how their lives would change in the coming weeks. The couple was poor, and didn't own a vehicle to evacuate the city when the storm came. And since New Orleans city management never organized a plan for those without means to evacuate, Kim and Scott were among the several thousands of residents who had no other choice but to stay behind and ride out the storm.

The rest of the world discovered in the days following that Katrina was one of the deadliest hurricanes in United States history. More than 1,800 people died from Katrina and her subsequent flooding.

Among the footage, the documentary showed the aftermath of the storm in the Ninth Ward - the abandoned, destroyed homes, empty and ravaged neighborhoods, many of which remain in rubble seven years after the storm.

While in New Orleans, Kayla and I drove through areas (not necessarily on purpose) that were affected by Katrina.

And as we drove through the city and discussed the remaining damage, I recalled how it wasn't so very improved from when I was there in 2007, volunteering near the Lower Ninth Ward to build homes in Musicians' Village for individuals displaced by Katrina. I still remember looking across the street from where my team was building, watching people and their pets live in small FEMA trailers next to their hurricane-destroyed homes - many still filled with molded furniture, clothes, and broken picture frames hanging on the walls. Some even had frozen dinners spilling out of the freezers.

As we watched "Trouble the Water," I was reminded again how real the devastation was. And how many people lost their homes - their lives - from the storm.

Pausing from the film, I asked Kayla, "Why do you think more of these neighborhoods haven't been rebuilt yet? Why doesn't someone come through and clean it up?"

"I think a lot of people just left and just never came back, or didn't have the means to come back," she said.

After Kayla's comment, the car went silent. Then she looked at me and asked if I was OK.

"Yes. It just makes me think about how much still needs to be done there, and what I could be doing to help," I said.

Agreeing with me instantly, Kayla said, "I know. Me, too."

The week I spent building homes in New Orleans - pouring concrete, hammering nails (poorly), and carrying supplies where they needed to go - I never thought my efforts mattered that much. And I was right.

My efforts, alone, didn't mean anything. But I wasn't alone. I worked with a team of more than 500 people that week. And six days later, a row of homes was erected, painted and decorated. Our actions seemed small at the time, but I know now, that our efforts meant something grand to the families who moved in months later. And we weren't the only group of 500. Week after week, hundreds of volunteers showed up to pick up where my team left off.

When "Trouble the Water" ended, I thought about how amazing it would be if there were similar assembly-line-like, world-bettering projects, in action every day.

In Victoria alone, Our Saviour's Lutheran Church is organizing groups to make shoes for Africa; Faith Family Church is organizing Project Elevation to build and restore homes, clean city streets among other projects. And our local ALS family recently organized a 5-kilometer race to raise money for medical research. There are many more projects going on in town, I'm sure.

But that's here in Victoria.

In general, how often is humanity guilty of ignoring the needs of their communities, and the needs of foreign nations because it seems like it should be someone else's project? How often do we lie to ourselves that we should just let someone else fix the problem, rather than getting a group of people in action and figuring out a solution ourselves?

I'm guilty of it myself. I asked Kayla on the ride home from New Orleans why she thought no one had come to clean up the city.

But what if the entire world (all 6 billion of us) had one day, one hour, to pick a project we felt passionate about, and use it to make it better, cleaner, stronger?

What if on that day, a group was feeding the hungry, shoeing the shoeless, and mentoring the uneducated? And the next day a group was befriending the friendless, rebuilding the broken, cleaning the dirty and healing the sick?

Some of us could give one hour. Others could give weeks, even months of their time. But what if we all had one day to change the world?

Maybe we could get those devastated mold trap homes in New Orleans cleaned up. Maybe we could lessen the overwhelming needs of poverty in the United States and abroad.

If it would only take one day of our lives to make an impact on the world, I wonder if we would wait for someone else to fix the problem, or if we would see that our efforts could slowly change the world for the better? Imagine how the rest of the world could pick up where we left off. Maybe one day we'll get there. One day.

Jennifer Preyss is a reporter for the Victoria Advocate. You can reach her at 361-580-6535 or jlpreyss@vicad.com.