eventeen-year-old Alyson Gorun couldn't believe her eyes. A year earlier, she had watched on TV from her home in Montclair, New Jersey, as Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, but it didn't prepare her for seeing the destruction in person. The raging storm had ripped houses from their foundations, leaving empty slabs of concrete. At other homes, rampant winds tore every shingle off the rooftops and collapsed the walls.
For 12 days this past summer, Alyson lived in New Orleans amongst those whose homes, community, and livelihood had been ripped away overnight in August 2005. Along with eight other teenagers, Alyson participated in a national Jewish Student Union (JSU) trip to help rebuild the stormravaged city.
Each morning, Alyson awoke at 5:45 a.m. to clear out devastated homes. In the heat of the swampy summer, she dressed in full body gear, with a respirator mask and goggles to protect her from dangerous black mold. She lugged sofas and TVs out of the homes, tore down crumbling drywall, and shoveled out floors caked with a foot of mud.
"It was 100 degrees, and I was wearing this full body suit, shoveling dirt into a barrel," Alyson recounts. "My body was telling me to stop working. But then I would think about the owner. It was a struggle, but I kept working because it would help someone."
Alyson worked in the Lower 9th Ward, a neighborhood filled mostly with low-income blacks. "We didn't even think about the people being in a lower socioeconomic class and a different race," says Alyson. We just wanted to help them regain their lives."
Alyson's duties included rescuing salvageable items. We were cleaning out an elderly couple's house, and I was about to throw out this huge ceramic pot," she recalls. The elderly woman, who was outside weeding, rushed toward Alyson.
"Wait! Don't throw that out," she yelped. Alyson quickly handed over the sponge-painted pottery. "I made it myself," the woman said proudly, tears welling in her eyes. I can't believe you found it," she said, thanking Alyson profusely. The woman eagerly told Alyson about her ceramics work, her grandchildren, and the beautiful flower garden that had blossomed near the house, which she hopes to replant.
The incident deepened Alyson's appreciation of the people she helped. These weren't just "hurricane victims," but people with families and interests-just like her. She strived to treat them with the respect that each person deserves. "After that, I was more careful and would check with the owners before throwing anything out," she says.
The JSU work was conducted in coordination with Common Ground, a group that strives to maintain the dignity of those it helps. With a motto of "Solidarity Not Charity," Common Ground emphasizes nurturing mutual respect by encouraging everyone it helps to give back to the community. "The people were extremely grateful," says Alyson. "And, they knew that once they were helped, they had a duty to help others."