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April 08, 2010

Redefining Voluntourism in New Orleans

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Last spring, I had the chance to stop in New Orleans during the first weekend of Jazz Fest as my brother and I drove cross country. Being pressed for time and budget, we didn’t have much of a chance to see the city outside of the festival grounds, but I was struck by two things. First, the degree to which the city had rebounded in the four years since Hurricane Katrina. Second, the degree to which it hadn’t.

Sure, Bourbon Street is up and running and most of the French Quarter looks to be in pretty good shape. But other areas of the city are still fighting, with stately, newly refurbished Victorian homes sitting next to condemned piles of debris covered in police tape. In outlying, less visible areas such as the now-infamous Ninth Ward, there are still major challenges.

Thankfully, Americans from all over the country have helped over the years, visiting the city and chipping in time, money, and resources as they come. New Orleans has become the epicenter of a growing trend toward voluntourism in this country. But as more gets done, and as more vacationers look to add community service projects to their itineraries, the need for volunteers to help rebuild is changing.

“In the early days [after Katrina], if you were a warm body, you could be of help,” says Laura Paul of, a long-term recovery organization that coordinates volunteers for building projects in the Ninth Ward. “Now, we’ve switched from gutting homes to rebuilding them and the experience of volunteering has changed.”

Currently, is helping to install sheetrock in the gutted homes of Ninth Ward residents who can't afford to hire the labor themselves. They’re also in the middle of a city-to-city fundraising effort across the United States. But, notes Paul, while New Orleans still attracts interest from volunteers—college kids, corporate groups, and religious organizations, mostly—what people want to do doesn’t always match up with what the city now needs.

“Most people still want to get hot and dirty and work hard,” says Paul, remembering a group of volunteers who gleefully vomited when the refridgerator they were removing from a wrecked house opened, spilling its putrid contents onto the street. “But the work is different now; it’s not as visually rewarding. You might work a week without seeing a noticeable difference on a project.”

Volunteer startups, like The Idea Village, look to bring business development professionals into the volunteer fold, attracting MBA grads or corporate volunteer teams to come help New Orleans’s small businesses get back on track. “I don’t want Google’s money,” says Daryn Dodson, Idea Village’s Director of University Partnerships, in this video roundtable on voluntourism hosted by New Orleans Institute. “I want Google's best people working on the hardest problems faced by the New Orleans entrepreneur.”

To that end, the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau coordinates with local organizations to steer volunteer groups to the organizations that can best utilize them. Figuring out which volunteers are best suited to which organizations is a complicated process.

“Landscaping a little old lady’s yard with Beacon of Hope is pretty simple,” says Mary Beth Romig, former director of communications for the convention bureau. “But you can’t just go into a library and start sheet rocking walls. There are all kinds of rules that come into play when it’s a government-owned building, and it creates a hitch in the system for projects that really could use volunteers."

While the CVB helps organizations as small as 20, individuals can look for opportunities with individual groups. Find a list of quality organizations here on the New Orleans Institute’s partner sites or on the convention bureau's voluntourism opportunities in New Orleans page.

So if you’re heading down to New Orleans for Jazz Fest, consider spending an extra day to help out one of the many excellent organizations still working to re-establish New Orleans as the great city it should be. There are still plenty of building and landscaping projects, but if you or your group has specialized skills, consider making those available as well.

Romig notes that some organizations can just make a cash donation to a volunteer project that lines up with their specialities. “So education groups that can't put in five or six hours will give money to a school," she says. "Those kinds of gifts are still very much needed.”

In Jazz Fest news, they’ve upgraded their website to integrate with visitors’ Facebook and Twitter pages. Buy your tickets, log in, and then click to pick which artists you’ll see on your days there. With ten stages and some 300 acts over the two weekends, you’ll need a plan. Don’t miss the gospel, blues, and jazz tents. I’m hoping to take a volunteer day off to go down and do my part. Afterwards, you’ll find me dancing zydeco at the Fais-Do-Do stage.

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Its been almost two years since you wrote this and Jazz Fest is almost here again! The work that was done rebuilding the city is paying off and things are looking up again. The work that was done for the past few years has paid off well for New Orleans and things are hopeful once again. Thanks, Ernest

Don't forget to check out Hands On New Orleans also.

Thank you for this informative piece, Pieter. We look very much forward to seeing you during Jazz Fest!

Should anyone have any questions about or the work we do, they should feel free to contact us any time -

Laura Paul
New Orleans, LA

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