For nothing is fixed, forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, The sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.

- James Baldwin from his essay "Nothing Personal"

Bearing Witness, Keeping Faith

Like many people who were shocked, horrified and sickened by what was happening to the residents of the Gulf Coast - both during and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the flooding of New Orleans - a group of us who were socially concerned people from the Boston area decided to reach out.

And like many who wanted to help in those desperate circumstances, we sent money, supplies and volunteers. It quickly became clear that recovery in the region was going to take at least a decade, given the scope and magnitude of the damage to homes and neighborhoods, businesses and communities. We didn't have the massive financial resources needed to aid the recovery, but we did have ourselves and each other.

Long Haul Philosophy: What Does Help Look Like to You?

Since the hurricanes we have developed a practical as well as philosophical foundation for our week-long relief trips. Once we arrive at a work site, we put ourselves completely at the service of the residents. We ask, "What does help look like to you?" Then we do everything in our power to do exactly what that resident - or that teacher, or that custodian - tells us would be helpful on that day.

We try and call as little attention to ourselves as possible. We work with all religious denominations, participating in their efforts, and also do freelance gutting and rebuilding. While we trust that our volunteers will have a rewarding and gratifying experience, our purpose is to restore a little bit of control and hope to the people we meet and work for. The trip is about them, not us.

It is a privilege to do this work. It is deeply rewarding and humbling. We are in it for keeps; for as long as it takes.

From President Rev. Mary Harrington
The Story and Purpose of Long Haul

Our first week-long service trip to the New Orleans area took place in early November 2005, nine weeks after Hurricane Katrina damaged an area that encompassed 100 miles of the Gulf Coast and went as far as 100 miles inland. (Hurricane Rita had also severely damaged many places already affected by Katrina, and some in addition.) Working primarily in communities on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, we cleared debris from people's yards, did roof repairs and learned how to gut houses.

We went because we had been invited by a local minister, even though we were worried about everything from toxic flood water to snakes to live wires from downed power lines. We were also concerned about getting in the way of rescue and relief efforts carried out by more experienced personnel. And a number of friends and colleagues asked us: "Wouldn't it be better to send the money it will cost your group of 15 to fly down there instead, and let the people there spend it on what's needed most?" Fair enough.

But after settling in to an intact house where most of us slept on the floor that week, we began to contact the people the minister told us about, and it was their disbelief and gratitude - really, their joy - in hearing that we, complete strangers, had come to pitch in and lend a hand that let us know our presence was a good and important thing. We spent as much time on listening to people and bearing witness to their trauma as we did on physical labor.

Our first few trips, and all that we learned from them, led to the formation of Gulf Coast Volunteers for the Long Haul in January, 2007. During its first year in operation Long Haul sponsored five week-long service trips, each one with between 14 and 40 volunteers. We are sponsoring six trips during 2008.

And Long Haul now offers consultation, training and workshops for other trip leaders and volunteers from other organizations, on trauma response, logistics, local contacts, work sites and volunteer group culture and dynamics.

We have made many friends in the region and formed enduring connections with local relief workers and those who work in New Orleans' schools, as well as the amazing, tenacious residents who have had to struggle to rebuild their lives far more than ever should be the case in this wealthy, powerful nation.

Any volunteer will tell you that we get back way more than we give.

I hope you will volunteer yourself, if you haven't already. And if that's not possible, please let us be your eyes and ears, hands and heart, and go on your behalf. What we can do there is very small so we can't promise dramatic results. Only that we do our best to serve with humility, love and deep respect.

To Be of Use
by Marge Piercy

The people I love best
Jump into work head first
Without dallying in the shallows
And swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
Who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
Who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
Who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
In the task, who go into the fields to harvest
And work in a row and pass the bags along,
Who are not parlor generals and field deserters
But move in a common rhythm
When the food must come in and the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing, done well,
Has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.

Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums,
But you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
And a person for work that is real.

Service Trips

Each trip usually runs from Sunday to Saturday. While there we work with individual homeowners to restore their houses, including gutting, sheet-rocking, painting, tiling, yard work and lots more. We also volunteer in elementary schools in the New Orleans Recovery School District. We help to build playgrounds with Kaboom, set up exhibits with the Louisiana Children's Museum and care for pets at Animal Rescue New Orleans. The Long Haul philosophy is that we do whatever is asked of us to the very best of our ability. Our two mottos for our volunteers are "Have Faith" and "Be Flexible".

Volunteers work really hard each day, usually from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Typically we pack our own bag lunches and take a brief lunch break. On occasion you can buy gumbo from the Pie Man in a school's parking lot. In the evening we hold de-briefing meetings to review the day, discuss highlights and listen with respect to each person's experience. People who didn't know each other at the beginning of a trip often become good friends through working, cooking, getting lost and talking together by the week's end.

Even though what we do seems small in the face of so much that has been damaged or destroyed (including people's hope and trust), we try to remember that whatever is done while we're there may not have been done at all otherwise, or not for an even longer time. Our most important goal is to remind our sisters and brothers in the Gulf Coast region that they have not been forgotten and that there are others who care and will keep coming back for as long as it takes.

Trip Costs

Volunteers are asked to purchase their own plane tickets. Long Haul also asks adult volunteers to contribute $100 to offset on-the-ground expenses such as groceries, housing, van rentals and activities. We truly believe in supporting our volunteers in doing this vital work and work hard to make the trips affordable. Our out-of-pocket expenses per volunteer average $350 per volunteer (not including airfare). Scholarships are available. Thank you to our donors and supporters for keeping us afloat.

Upcoming trips

March 15-21, 2015

If you are interested in volunteering, please contact our Trip Coordinator, Trina Heinisch at: trinah2.0@gmail.com

Past trips

November, 2005: Intergenerational group of 15 removed debris and gutted houses in Lacombe, Mandeville, Covington, Folsom and Slidell in St. Tammany Parish on the North Shore of Lake Ponchatrain, and in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

March, 2006: Adult and college student group of 19 insulated, sheetrocked, and painted in St. Tammany Parish, and gutted houses and worked in the Distribution Center with Project Hope in St. Bernard ParishTrina Heinisch <trinah2.0@gmail.com>.

November, 2006: Adult group of 21 gutted houses in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans, worked on Musician's Village with Habitat for Humanity in the Nineth Ward, and did construction work in St. Tammany Parish.

March, 2007: Intergenerational group of 18 gutted houses and did construction work in the Seventh Ward, sheetrocked at a church, and painted and landscaped homes in Pearlington, Mississippi. Joined by 21 students and staff from the Gann Academy, Waltham, MA - a Jewish high school for students in the greater Boston area.

May, 2007: Adult and young adult group of 17 did tutoring at an elementary school in the Ninth Ward, playground construction for another elementary school with Kaboom, and construction work in St. Bernard Parish, the Seventh Ward, and in Pearlington, MS.

August, 2007: A group of 16 college students and adults worked with individual homeowners, assisted All Churches Together with a program to provide furniture to residents of the Nineth Ward, and painted school classrooms to prepare for school re-openings.

October, 2007: Intergenerational group of 18 worked in 5 schools and did finish work on a house in the Seventh Ward that we have been helping to rebuild for the past year.

December, 2007: Adult group of 14 gutted one house and worked on rebuilding 2 others, as well as volunteering at 3 schools in New Orleans.

February, 2008: High school youth and adults from the Winchester Unitarian Society will work in Dulac, Louisiana, rebuilding houses through the United Methodist relief organization. Due to limited housing this trip is reserved for members of the Winchester UU church, where our trips originated.

May 19-25, 2008: This trip was for both college students and adults and included a combination of work in Bayou country as well as New Orleans.

August 23-31, 2008: For college students, to help New Orleans schools ready themselves for the return of the children the following week. Work included painting, moving furniture and materials, shelving books and setting up equipment.

Who Volunteers?

High School/Youth Volunteers

From the very beginning, our trips have included high school-aged youth. In fact we trace our work ethic and trip culture to the youth group (WUSY-G) at the Winchester Unitarian Society. Members of that youth group have participated on Habitat-type service trips for more than a decade.

Long Haul service trips are open to anyone age 15 or older. We go as equals regardless of age or relationship to others on a given trip, in terms of respect, mutual support, team leadership and workload.

At the conclusion of our first trip, the week of November 1, 2005, volunteer Andy Parsons (10th grade) wrote:

What is the sound of a busy hammer? To some, it is a mere annoyance, a clatter that disrupts the peace of a cool fall morning. Others hear impossibility - a drop in the bucket - a sound of futile and wasted effort. But to me, the sharp bang is music to my ears. It fills me with an indescribable happiness that increases tenfold with each additional hammer that lets its presence be known in this otherwise silent and deserted place. It is a sound of hope, of resilience, and of faith. Faith in the power of mankind to overcome a bleak and tragic situation. Faith in people's ability to come together with utter disregard for race, religion, or any other characteristics by which we segregate ourselves in daily life, simply to lessen the physical and mental burden left on those who found themselves most affected by the devastation.

Mother Nature did not discriminate when it came to those whose lives were turned upside down, and neither will we when it comes time to help Louisianans right themselves. The bang of a hammer is a step in the right direction, a step towards normal.a step towards home.

College Student Volunteers

Long Haul has a special commitment to college students who would like to volunteer. We hope that some of the students who volunteer with us will be inspired to return to the area after graduating, to serve as teachers, social workers, mental health providers and medical professionals.

And even if they don't move there to work after graduation, we believe their experience will open their eyes to a unique part of our country, help them gain confidence in what they can do to make a difference anywhere they may live, and embolden them to stand in solidarity with those who are struggling because of racism, trauma, poverty and governmental neglect.

Volunteer David Khuen, a student from Colorado College, delivered this message during a church service we were invited to, at the end of our March, 2006 trip:

Hello everyone, my name is Dave Khuen and I am here from Winchester, MA. I was asked to share what we learned in the past couple of days. I only have a couple of minutes so I will focus on the two biggest lessons I will take away from this trip.

To begin with, being in a room with three snoring men was a test to my patience - the next time your spouse, significant other, child, pet, friend or colleague is snoring, try syncopating your breath with their snores. And if that doesn't work, a swift downward motion with a pillow will also do the job!

Secondly, and vastly more important, is the new faith that has been evoked in me. This faith is not one in God or any other manifested divine power. This is a new faith in the power of friendship and human kindness. In a time of unspeakable tragedy, hope is hard to find. Although in times of tragedy, when hope hides behind the massive task ahead, it is not lost. What keeps hope alive is a two- way street. First, we, the volunteers, give hope to the people we work with. Seeing the looks on people's faces - even if we did something as simple as move their heavy couch and bed to their new home - is almost as if we lifted their couch and bed from on top of their chest.

And in the much more devastated areas, where instead of moving couches to new homes, we were moving entire walls and ceilings to the corner for rubbish removal, you could see hope being pumped back into the homeowners. Yes, as a collective group, we helped less than 1% of the people needing help, and we did not even finish all of our tasks. But that is OK because more important than finishing the job, is the hope and faith in human goodness we tried to restore in the people we helped.

Like I said before, it is a two-way street. If you were not as strong, smart, and generally amazing as you are, all the help in the world could not bring hope. You guys, with your perpetually chipper attitudes and determination to press on, allow our miniscule help to really make a difference. As long as we, the outer community, continue to slowly but surely help with the disaster relief, and as long as the people of New Orleans continue to keep the hope candle burning bright, in ten years Hurricane Katrina will not be thought of as just a Natural Disaster, but as a test and ultimate proof of human faith and the resiliency of hope.

Adult Volunteers

One of the most rewarding aspects of relief work has been the chance to learn new skills and do things some of us never knew we capable of. Volunteers who had never wielded a hammer before have learned to pull nails and install dry wall. Those who had never measured or cut a piece of dry wall have sheet-rocked entire rooms. Many of us have also been reminded and humbled by the value of just listening, really listening, to someone else, without offering advice, being able to fix something or help in any other way other than human presence and caring.

And those with construction experience have offered themselves as patient and enthusiastic teachers while others of us followed their instructions - resulting in chain-sawing fallen trees, hanging doors and learning to use a nail gun.

And if you are not able to do participate in this kind of physical labor for the whole week, there are lots of other jobs to do - including shopping, cooking, gardening, tutoring and running errands.

Recipe for a Relief Worker
By Janet Parsons, Volunteer and Long Haul Board Member

Take one very reserved, checkbook liberal, suburban hockey mom, who was acutely aware of the world's problems, but with no idea how or where to make a positive contribution.

Add equal parts wind, rain, crumbling levees, toxic flood water, mud, and mold.

Add soaked furniture, clothing, books, food, and wheelbarrows full of ruined sheetrock.

Add the sight of bloated refrigerators perched on kitchen counters, boats perched on houses, and boxcars perched on fast food restaurants.

Add children's toys and Christmas stockings floating in a ditch.

Add one minister with a vision of how to help people.

Add volunteers who will do anything.

Add love, spirit, faith, open hearts, and a dollop of Southern hospitality.

Stir to the very roots of her being, using examples of courage, love, gratitude and joy in the midst of devastation.

Expose for up to one week at a time on all sides, morning, noon, and night.

Repeat process for a year and a half, or as long as it takes to make a difference.

Let cool and observe result:

A woman who can hot patch sheetrock, who can call complete strangers to invite them on relief trips, who will hop in a cargo van and drive 1,500 miles with donated books for schools, who will drive anywhere in a major city with a map and a prayer, who can ask people for money, who eats food made and sold in a truck, who hugs people before finding out their names, who will cry, sing and pray in public, who knows the difference between Creole and Cajun, who will become enraged at evidence of waste and excess, who can talk to just about anyone about just about anything, and who knows, deep down inside, that she is making a difference.