By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald
Travelers to foreign lands usually spend their time engaged in a mix of recreational and cultural activities.
But on her first trip to the United States, Londoner Jaiydeen Campbell-Deeble devoted most of her 10-day “vacation” to a home construction site in the Lower 9th Ward. The 17-year-old was either atop a ladder painting the house’s eaves, or learning her way around a nail gun.
“There was this little nail in the corner of the baseboard that I had to drill in, and it just wouldn’t work out,” chuckled Campbell-Deeble, one of eight students from three Ursuline high schools in London who paid their own way to New Orleans last month to help rebuild a house in the 2300 block of Lamanche Street for its 72-year-old owner.
“So, what I have learned is how to persevere!” Campbell-Deeble said.
Since 2010, an annual group of British Ursuline students has made the long trek to New Orleans help rebuild houses sponsored by the local Ursuline Sisters through their partnership with the St. Bernard Project (now called SBP). Founded in 2006 to help residents uprooted by Hurricane Katrina return to their homes, SBP is now active in six states and has brought home more than 1,500 families impacted by natural disasters, including the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri.
“Once we build a house, it’s more than just putting a roof over someone’s head. We come as compassionate people. We come to serve. We come to give them encouragement,” said Ursuline Sister Regina Marie Fronmuller, the New Orleans-based woman religious who spearheaded the Ursuline-SBP partnership in 2008. With elbow grease and donations from Ursulines’ global network of alumnae and friends, the Ursuline Sisters have sponsored five SBP houses to date in the Upper 9th Ward, Lower 9th Ward and New Orleans East.
Empty spaces intrigue crew
Last month’s teenage crew from London arrived to a nearly completed house, taking on finishing touches such as exterior painting, caulking and the installation of molding, doors and flooring. Incredibly, more than 13 years after Katrina, some parts of the Lower 9th Ward are still “jack-o’lanterned” – a random patchwork of new builds, dilapidated houses and prairie-like spaces exploding with goldenrod and debris.
“Driving around, when we see all the empty plots, it’s a shock because in England our houses are either semi-detached or right next to one another,” noted Campbell-Deeble, who attends Ursuline High School in Brentwood, located 30 miles east of central London. “It is a completely different experience to see all the empty space,” added Campbell-Deeble.
Daily welcome wagon
Ruby June Powell, a student at Ursuline High School in tennis-famous Wimbledon, said her New Orleans-forged skills include getting over her fear of climbing ladders and learning how to install baseboards.
“It’s a bit like puzzle working,” observed Powell, 17, of carpentry work. “What is really challenging is to make sure you’re getting the right angles, the right lengths. One centimeter can ruin the whole thing and you have to start over.”
Powell said she was bowled over by the friendliness of strangers on her first big trip across the pond.
“Everyone is so appreciative of what we’re doing,” she marveled. “Every day, this guy rides by on his bike shouting out, ‘Well done, girls!’ It’s very friendly. I love that (about) here.”
It’s a service ‘win-win’
The Anglo-American collaboration took off in 2010, when Sister Regina Marie reached out to Sister Kathleen Colmer, the provincial of the London-area Ursulines, to propose an annual “service exchange” in which British Ursuline students in the sixth form (the British equivalent of American high school seniors) would come to New Orleans to work on houses, and groups of American Ursuline alumnae would volunteer at soup kitchens and homeless shelters in the U.K.
“We are united through our motto of Serviam – ‘I will serve,’” Sister Regina Marie said. “We Ursulines are global. We are one. We arrived (in New Orleans) in 1727, and there’s still that friendliness, that following in the steps of St. Angela, that stronger need to serve than to be served,” she said.
“I tell the students who come here, ‘You are full of vim, vigor and vitality!’” Sister Regina Marie said. “The mere fact of their youth, their happiness, their joy – energizes the homeowners. If it wasn’t for volunteers, our homeowners would never come home.”
It wasn’t all work and no play for the London teens. They learned about Louisiana history and architecture at Laura Plantation, held alligators during a swamp tour and attended the Krewe of Boo parade in the French Quarter. Newly discovered culinary treats, all provided by Ursuline alumnae, included turtle soup, fried catfish, bananas foster and “American Cheetos,” which the visitors said far eclipsed their British counterpart.
They also got to know their American peers while staying at Ursuline Academy’s State Street campus – in an eight-bedroom wing maintained by the Sisters. Their timing made it possible to attend the high school’s Rally Night and Open House events.
“The rally was brilliant,” marveled Raphina Williams, an 18-year-old at Ursuline Academy in Ilford (in east London), taking a break from laying white gloss paint onto doors bound for the Ninth Ward house. “We don’t have rally at our school, and if we did, it wouldn’t be as friendly of a competition as you have here,” Williams said.
The Brits received constant selfie requests from the girls at Ursuline New Orleans.
“We’d walk past and they’d say, ‘They’re the London girls! They’re the London girls!’” Powell said, smiling. “They love our accent and they always try to do it. They’re very friendly, and I think very thankful that we came all the way here to help.”
Friendly New Orleans
Although the British teens won’t be physically present at their house’s Nov. 19 ribbon-cutting, Instagram will help bridge the miles. Campbell-Deeble she couldn’t wait to share “the spirit of New Orleans” with her friends and family in England.
“Everyone’s a bit standoffish in London. We wouldn’t walk up to a stranger and say hello, whereas, everywhere we’ve gone (in New Orleans) we’ve said, ‘Hi! We’re from London!’ It’s a completely different interaction,” said Campbell-Deeble, sharing yet another difference she detected during Mass at St. Louis Cathedral.
“We say the ‘Our Father’ a lot faster than you guys!” Campbell-Deeble said.
Beth Donze can be reached at email@example.com.