Laura Gmeinder

Being Brave in the Big Easy: Theta's Alumnae Service Trip

When I was a little girl, I would run away from home (Note that I had a loving family and mostly wonderful childhood. My struggle started long after my runaway days). I’d threaten to move into the garage. Or I would run across the street to the local hospital and sit on a bench and watch the squirrels chase each other until I got bored. Or hungry. And then I would go home. I was independent and wanted to live my own life. At six.

And it’s something I still struggle with. It's a pull that many of us can relate to: the need to escape when things are tough. When we lose control. When life's outcome is yet unknown. The space that lies between what was and what will be.

Which brings me to my New Orleans service trip, the perfectly timed opportunity to run away from home. This trip took place during a long weekend in February, and was hosted by Kappa Alpha Theta specifically for alumnae to serve the New Orleans community. I am struggling to get the experience out of my heart and head. To weave what I learned and what I saw, to process it and save the memories, to remember this special time and the way it changed me.

The stories. The tears. The hugs. The destruction. A sadness that is as thick as the humidity that blankets the town. Their beautiful resilience.

And Mardi Gras, their crown jewel, the glue that holds a community together, that thing that drives them to persevere. I’m still not sure why they call New Orleans the Big Easy, because it seems like life there, for many, is anything but easy.

I remember being glued to my television on Labor Day 2005, watching the tragedy unfold in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina was set to level the city. And in the days and weeks that followed I felt called to help. Me, at the time a 20-something from middle-class middle America. What did I have to contribute?

At the time I had a laundry list of reasons why I shouldn't go… none of which registered in my head as fear. But it was fear that held me back, my brain’s way of keeping me safe. And for a long time I lived feeling very safe, but I was not very happy.

Safe and happy rarely co-exist.

In the time since I've changed so much. It's hard to recognize that version of myself, my old life, because regrets are no longer welcomed. Doubt and fear are considered challenges; they no longer register in my head and heart as a warning of possible danger. Or if they do, I look for facts to overcome self-doubt and move from fear to action.

Imagine my joy when I was invited to do a service trip in New Orleans. And with it a chance to run away from home.

So I joined 18 strangers in an unknown city and we immersed ourselves in the culture. We gave of ourselves. We tried to help in the best way we could. The long weekend is a blur of sadness, perseverance and hope. And echoed through our acts of charity, our love in action:

"When are you going to the parade?"

We were asked that question a lot. Even from those standing in their front yards with roofs ripped off by the recent tornado, dealing with the emotion yet another natural disaster brings. And the PTSD from Katrina rises like the creek. It’s tattooed on their souls, never to be forgotten. The very best and very worst of human nature.

So to honor those wishes we went to the parade. I danced in the rain, covered in beads. And it was pure joy. Those 30 minutes…my heart was doing cartwheels in my chest. Nothing else mattered. Life was good.

And I got it. I finally understood - come rain, high water, tornado or any other challenge they may face - the parade is what unites the people of New Orleans. Their culture, their history, their future. It’s symbolic of their resilience and a reminder that better days that are certainly ahead. They don't run. They take one day at a time and look forward to the next parade.

This trip, the people I met, showed me a resilience I didn't know existed. It awoke that part of me. Next time, I'm not going to run. I'm going to work through it. But I'll be waiting for my parade to get me through.