Community Service

'Am I in America?'

July 01, 2007
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'Am I in America?'

By Claire Ippoliti

Editor's note: Claire Ippoliti, Philadelphia Federal Credit Union's vice president of lending, spent a week volunteering in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, an area devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans looks as though time has stood still. And while the water here has receded, nothing else has changed.

Not far away, the French Quarter looks as if it had never been touched by Hurricane Katrina or the flood waters. And yet, even though separated by mere miles, these two sections of the city are worlds apart.

As I stand in the Lower Ninth 18 months after the hurricane, I find myself asking, "Am I still in America?" The devastation lingers and is immense.

Still, the philosophy of people helping people is alive and well due to an organization called Emergency Communities (EC).

I recently took some time off to volunteer at EC's Goin' Home Community Café for a week. EC provides some basics to a community in desperate need—things like three meals a day, laundry, telephone and Internet access, children's programs, home gutting, and grass cutting—all free to local residents and volunteers still suffering from the effects of Hurricane Katrina.

What touched me the most during my one-week stint was meeting the residents. Amidst the devastation, you could find Harold everyday at the center either writing poetry or offering help with some of the chores. If you happen to be in the center while Ralph is stopping by for a meal, you will be entertained by him singing beautiful love songs.

Second most impactful was the display of dedication and commitment from the volunteers. I do not know how they do it.

Imagine the personnel issues we all face each day in our respective offices. Now imagine that you live together 24 hours a day, work 14 to 16 hours most days, are short-staffed, and have to train new staff on a continual basis. Oh, by the way, the pay is zero, zilch, nothing.

Add to this the fact that your work environment is less than ideal (located in a high-crime area, dormitory sleeping arrangements, outdoor shower). It brings new meaning to the phrase "people helping people."

When I left the site, I cried for the residents who discovered that the physical tragedy of the storm paled in comparison to the continuous victimization by many. I cried because I was moved by the dedication of those involved with EC; because I was able to walk away and leave it behind—or could I?

Claire Ippoliti is vice president of lending at Philadelphia Federal Credit Union. She serves on the CUNA Lending Council's Executive Board and is a credit union development educator. Contact her at 215-934-4040.

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