Alternative Spring Break, New Orleans: City of Second Chances

Each year during Harvard’s spring break, PBHA’s Alternative Spring Break program sends student volunteers on public service trips across the United States. This spring, nine freshman students traveled to New Orleans to build vegetable gardens as part of the city’s continued efforts to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. The students blogged throughout the trip, reflecting on the city’s redevelopment and their role in the community; this is part four of their series. Read part one, part two, and part three here. 

In New Orleans it’s impossible to miss out on the home-made southern food. You eat crispy fried chicken for lunch and sticky sweet bread pudding with dinner. And food is more than just sustenance here, it’s the heart of the community. Today we met a women whose restaurant and food have been at the center of New Orleans’s soul since the 1940s. Mrs. Dooky Chase, the “real princess of New Orleans” after whom Disney’s Princess Tiana was modeled, is an influential and inspirational figure for the community, using her restaurant as place to start conversations in the African-American community and as a meeting point during the Civil Right’s movement, housing Dr. King himself.

This incredible woman, at 92 years old, still goes in to work, still makes the fried chicken batter, and still entertains customers who want to speak to her. She says, “I can’t sit around and wait to die while there’s all this work to be done.” I was struck by her words. A woman who has already accomplished so much, more than a lot of people will ever will, doesn’t think she is done. She knows that New Orleans is still recovering after the storm and she has to play her part in that.

Volunteers with Mrs. Dooky Chase, "the real princess of New Orleans."

Volunteers with Mrs. Dooky Chase, “the real princess of New Orleans.”

Mrs. Chase is one of the many people we have met who embody what it means to have a New Orleans spirit. She is pillar of strength and like many other leader in the community, she knows how to lead by example.

I am also very humbled by how grateful everyone we’ve encountered is. When we arrived at the restaurant, our waiter, Omar, wanted to make sure we knew that he appreciated what we were doing. Mrs. Chase thanked us. The seniors at the church thanked us. The pastor thanked us. All of these people were so thankful for our time and our help with something that may seem so very small in the face of the very large problems facing New Orleans. So what I’ve realized is that we can’t make big change without making small change first. And that however minute our 12 garden boxes may seem, they mean the world to some families who will be learning healthy eating habits.

Mrs. Chase believes that if there is something to be done, then it is her responsibility to do it. I have been inspired by her words and will try to take them back with me. There is no action too small or insignificant, so long as you’re doing something.

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