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On July 28, a crew of 15 volunteers from local nonprofit Ben’s Lighthouse returned from a weeklong service trip to the area of Baton Rouge, La.
The volunteers had partnered with disaster recovery organization St Bernard Project (SBP) to provide flood relief one year after heavy rains dumped approximately seven trillion gallons of water on southern Louisiana. Centered in Livingston Parish, the 12 youth volunteers and three chaperones worked on rebuilding three sites throughout the week, moving homeowners closer to returning to their homes at last.
Founded in the name of Ben Wheeler, a victim of 12/14, Ben’s Lighthouse has been providing service opportunities and programming for the Newtown community since 2013. Driven by the idea that “Helping is Healing,” Ben’s Lighthouse Outreach Trips enable high school volunteers to experience the impacts of service and the value of empathy. The Baton Rouge effort marked the fifth annual Outreach Trip; past trips have traveled to Oklahoma (2013), Colorado (2014 and 2015), and Montana (2016).
Almost a year after catastrophic flooding damaged at least 140,000 residences, the Baton Rouge area continues to recover. The widespread lack of flood insurance policies and the shortage of relief funding and resources have only compounded the issue. FEMA trailers still populate the suburban streets of Denham Springs, parked outside vacant, gutted homes.
Oscar Welch, the owner of one of the three homes worked on by the Ben’s Lighthouse crew, offered a better understanding of the flood’s lasting impacts.
“It’s been really a depressing six months,” he said, sitting in the shade on top of a stack of drywall awaiting installation. After being forced to live with relatives nearby, Mr Welch wistfully awaits “Just getting back to my home and being independent.”
Reflecting back on this year’s trip, Ben’s Lighthouse Program Manager Rebecca Cosgrove is enthusiastic about the character of the group and their efforts at the worksite.
“Our team brought such a generosity of spirit and made fast friends with everyone they encountered, particularly the homeowners we were helping. Those connections motivated our crew to work so hard, united by a sense of purpose and a desire to make an impact. We were able to make a lot of progress and it was clear how much hope that brought,” said Ms Cosgrove.
“One of the goals of our outreach trips is to shine a light in the darkness that other communities are facing. I know we did that here, and we’re honored to be a part of their recovery,” she added.
Although the trip was primarily focused on providing aid to communities devastated by flooding, the Baton Rouge effort provided a dual opportunity for participants to grow through service and explore the local culture of Louisiana. Onsite, the group learned hands-on as they worked on a variety of construction tasks including drywalling, flooring, tiling, mudding, taping, and painting.
After work, they also had the opportunity to connect with the region’s unique history and traditions, including spending an evening in the French Quarter of New Orleans and enjoying the beauty of the bayou on a swamp tour.
The experience certainly proved transformative for its participants, each returning home with a refined sense of purpose and perspective. When asked about the highlight of the week, trip participant Mathew Jaeger said it was “seeing the completed home at the welcome home party. It just goes to show that the work we did on all the houses we worked on is making an impact on these people’s lives and we are bringing them one step closer to moving back in to their homes.”
Bridget Walsh also recalled memories of the trip glowingly, remarking, “The trip to Baton Rouge allowed me to cultivate connections with new friends, new passions, and a community affected by disastrous flooding. I plan to hold the memories of hard work, laughter, and exploration close to heart, and I am inspired to further my impact on this world through service.”
The recovery process is far from finished, however, and the volunteer presence has not been enough to meet the monumental need.
“This is the third volunteer crew,” Mr Welch pointed out. Nonetheless, the support of volunteers has proven invaluable to the homeowners. “I feel really blessed that this is happening,” he said. With more volunteer efforts like that put forth by Ben’s Lighthouse, Mr Welch and thousands of other homeowners will be able to finally cut the ceremonial ribbon and return to their homes and their lives.
To learn more about Ben’s Lighthouse, including upcoming programming for young adults, visit benslighthouse.org.