New Orleans landscape shocks teens

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— Teenagers wrestle with each other and climb on broken treadmills atop a trash pile waiting to be picked up.

But as soon as the white trailer pulls up, the youths race to suit up and get to work inside a home. Soon, hammers pounding and shovels scooping are the only sounds that can be heard.

Twenty high school students and seven chaperones from First Christian Church's youth group went to work on a home Wednesday morning in the town of Chalmette just east of New Orleans. The cleanup is part of the group's weeklong post-Hurricane Katrina mission trip.

Not one was shy about getting their hands dirty. But they were a little surprised.

"It has been seven months (since the hurricane), so I didn't expect there to be mud in the house," 15-year-old Andrew Field said. "There's a foot or two of mud in the house, and it stunk really bad."

Church members are working through the Kentucky-based CrossRoads Missions. They remove moldy drywall and insulation from houses, as well as mud, tile and damaged personal belongings. As soon as the teenagers finish one house, they move to the next.

"They were pretty glad we got three houses done (Monday) when they didn't think we could get two done," Field said. "They were impressed because we're just high school students."

Youth pastor John Graler said he tried to prepare the youths for what they were going to see: piles of trash lining streets, homes with no windows or doors and businesses - even Wal-Mart - sitting empty. But Graler could talk all day and not prepare the students for the things they are experiencing in New Orleans.

"I didn't expect it to be this bad," 18-year-old Brittnie Durham said. "And it's everywhere. It's not just a couple of places, it's the whole area."

Even Graler, a self-proclaimed "news junkie," wasn't ready. Nothing on TV prepared him to see the devastation firsthand.

"It still caught me when we came up on those four of five houses piled up on each other," Graler said. "That took me by surprise."

These shocking images are what Graler hopes will draw his students into the trip and realize the work they're doing.

"With any mission trip, I want them to come back with more appreciation for what they have," Graler said.

Field said he also hopes to instill a bit of joy in the people who own the houses he's working on this week.

"I'm hoping that when they see us working like this for free, they can see Jesus Christ in us, the love in us," he said.

Michelle Perry can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 204, or mperry@craigdailypress.com.

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