Since August 2006, St. Bernard Project residents and volunteers have rebuilt more than 100 homes in the St. Bernard Parish, an area near New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward that was one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina. On the project web site, one resident describes the unique ways of the St. Bernard people. “Meet us once,” she writes, “and you walk away as if you have known us your entire life.”
That is precisely how Augsburg senior, Matt Eller, feels about Kenny, a man he met last month in New Orleans.
Matt and 12 other Augsburg students met Kenny on the spring break Pedalers for Peace trip. Kenny was the group’s New Orleans neighbor; he lived on the back porch of the house next door to where the Pedalers set up camp. Throughout the week, Kenny served as unofficial tour guide to the students, helping them find places to volunteer.
Kenny also literally gave Matt the jacket off his back on the day the group left the city. He recalled, “A man who had absolutely nothing gave us his own things.” Kenny’s generosity so touched Matt that he committed to sleeping in a tent on Augsburg’s campus for one month to raise awareness and donations for New Orleans residents.
On the trip, Matt heard that people like Kenny are returning to New Orleans to find their former homes barricaded with barbed wire, declared unsafe for occupancy. The Gulf Coast Housing Recovery Act, passed in 2006, requires public or HUD-assisted housing to be replaced, but the Pedalers learned that affordable housing is not being constructed. “They are trying to squish the poor out,” Matt said. “The government says that by building mixed-income housing they are trying to get rid of crime, but their plan is racially and economically driven.”
From April 3 to May 3, Matt is camping in the quad and asking students, faculty, and staff to donate money or personal care items. On Saturday, April 19, he is inviting the Augsburg community to join him for a cookout from 9 p.m. to midnight and to bring toothpaste and toothbrushes, tampons and pads, condoms, deodorant, paper and pens, board games, blankets, or clothing.
When asked why it matters that a private college student is sleeping in a tent, Matt says he wants people to become consciously aware of those who do not have adequate food or shelter. “The bottom line is, it doesn’t matter how much money you have or don’t have,” he said. “Nobody wants to see somebody suffering. Nobody wants to see someone sleeping under a bridge.”
In May, the renamed “Pedalers for Projects” will return to New Orleans with their bikes and the items Matt collects. For more information about this project, talk to Matt in the quad or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Media coverage of Matt’s effort: