With our gale-force winds, downed trees, flooding and blackouts, locals recently got an appetizer of the now 2-year-old meal America’s Gulf residents had to swallow following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Today marks the anniversary of the day New Orleans almost died.

Earlier this month, three Oak Parkers – my son, Jordan West, an OPRF freshman; investment banker Yolanda Douglas and myself traveled with 45 others to New Orleans to assist with repairs of homes in three parishes, and to record the experience for radio and film productions.

The first chronicle airs Sunday, Sept. 2, 6:30 a.m. on WNUA 95.5 FM, featuring New Orleans performance poet “Shakespear” (that’s how he spells his name) discussing his newest work, “I Don’t Know How to Feel?” and “I Died Already.” Many of you know him from HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam” and “When the Levees Broke” where he performed post-Katrina poetry. My son and Yolanda (a mentor with Columbia College’s “Saturday Scholars” Program through the Center for Community Arts Partnership) spent time with Shakespear, his mom, Lorraine “Mama Shake” Alexander, and her grandson, Shelton “Little Shake” Alexander, Jr., in their two white FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) trailers in Violet, St. Bernard Parish, where their brown brick home used to be. This parish still looks like a war zone. “This is where the levee broke,” Shake said, pointing to a desolate pasture. “Homes used to be here. Now it’s just grass and the memories of the souls who died.”

Here 30,000 residents applied for federal Katrina relief. Only four families have received it, according to a documentary we saw at Habitat for Humanity’s “Camp Hope.” We slept at Camp Hope for a week as part of a team of 48 high school and college students, Columbia College faculty, mentors, and a film production team conducting research and development for Life After Katrina, a feature-length documentary premiering Sept. 22 at the Oak Park International Film Festival, and the following week at Columbia College Chicago.

Other Oak Parkers involved in our journey included Rachel Breunlin, editor of The Neighborhood Story Project Presents: Coming Out the Door for the Ninth Ward by the Nine Times Social and Pleasure Club, which we saw on the walls of Common Ground, a black-led volunteer group that repairs homes; and Jessica Gerson, an administrator connected with Community Awareness Network, who appears in the Columbia College documentary directed by Kevin Caldwell. We know Jessica’s dad, Rabbi Gary Gerson, of Temple Oak Park, because my sons and I volunteered at the Temple’s homeless shelter night.

I complimented Rachel’s work editing this book, which Ninth Ward residents wrote. One of my relatives fled from the Ninth Ward during Katrina, and like most, will never return because of the lack of jobs, housing, schools, infrastructure, and “anchor,” which is how many people described the loss of family networks – the source of much of the post-traumatic stress disorder documented by mental health practioners. Alice Kraft-Kierney, head of the Lower Ninth Ward Health Clinic, described the lack of mental health care, and I told her my wife, Earlene, a child psychologist, said she wanted to come back to New Orleans ever since her colleague, Oak Park-based child psychiatrist, Dr. Renee Mehlinger, went to New Orleans to assist citizens suffering from depression.

Shakespear, or “Shake,” as he’s commonly called (his given name is Shelton), visited Chicago in July, speaking to students who later traveled to New Orleans. He urged students to write poems, letters to the editors and creative nonfiction essays to voice their outrage over how little federal, state and local authorities have done to restore and repair America’s most unique, and perhaps most historic and culturally rich city. Where else but New Orleans can you find streets named “Desire,” “Music” and “Humanity?” Like me, he used brooms in the morning and cameras in the afternoon to do what we could to make it better for citizens there.

Mama Shake told our group, “I don’t really know or even care when my house will ever be built. Right now, all I care about is that my shed be built.” A Columbia College photojournalist named Max said he couldn’t take another picture until the shed was built. That week, we went to work and rebuilt her wooden shed. I took a photograph of Max, hammer in hand by the new structure. After that, we ate delicious fried catfish and shrimp prepared by Mama Shake. Then we left for Chicago.

It may seem small to outsiders, but to us it was huge accomplishment – symbolizing the lesson we all learned: Volunteers with a purpose are more efficient in reconstruction than governments. To see more, please join us Saturday, Sept. 22 at the Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake St., for the Oak Park International Film Festival. My son, Jordan, will introduce Life After Katrina to attendees interested in what New Orleaneans have to say.

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