This 19-Year-Old Moved to New Orleans For the Summer to Rebuild Homes and Feed the Community

Carolyn Twersky
·7 mins read
Photo credit: courtney chavez
Photo credit: courtney chavez

From Seventeen

In partnership with Feeding America, Seventeen and Hearst Magazines are committed to putting an end to hunger. To help food banks feed families in need, please donate at FeedingAmerica.org.

It can be easy to feel completely helpless as your life seemingly falls apart due to COVID. But if you have food on the table and a roof over your head, it's important to remember that you are lucky, though I know sometimes it may not feel like it. When Aishat Jimoh's plans to go abroad this year were derailed, she took the opportunity to use her free time to give back and she left her home in New Jersey to head down to New Orleans, where she spent the summer volunteering and helping out the people in the Lower Ninth Ward of the city with lowernine.org. While there, Aishat helped to rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and worked with Feeding America to support those with food insecurities in the community.

Right now, thanks to COVID, there are 54 million people experiencing food insecurity in the US. In New Orleans, one in five people deal with hunger. And, 15 years after Katrina, many families are still struggling to put their life back together. As of 2016, only 36.7% of the original population has returned to the Lower Ninth Ward following the hurricane. According to lowernine.org, the FEMA closeout date for the storm is 2025, but many estimate rebuilding the neighborhood will still take another decade. Lowernine.org has rebuilt eighty-eight homes in the community so far, while also completing smaller renovations on over 200 other homes. This is the work that Aishat participated in this summer, which is why she is being honored as Seventeen's first ever Voice of Change. A Voice of Change is a young person who looks at the world and thinks, "things could be better." Then, they go and work to make that change. That is exactly what Aishat did when she went to New Orleans this summer, and that is what young people around the world continue to do every day.

Here's what Aishat had to say about her experience:

17: What made you decide to volunteer?

Aishat Jimoh: This summer, my original plan wasn't actually to volunteer with lowernine.org, but since study abroad was canceled for my school, I had to look at other resources for volunteer opportunities and internship opportunities. My school actually gave me the resource omprakash.org, which is kind of like a volunteering base where people can find volunteering experiences and apply. Lowernine.org just so happened to be one of those non-profit organizations. I read a little more about them and I loved everything they stood for in terms of helping to rebuild New Orleans and understanding how Katrina is still currently affecting people today. I thought this would be a great opportunity to give a helping hand.

17: Where were you staying while you volunteered?

AJ: I was actually staying at the volunteer house.

17: What was that like?

AJ: I really enjoyed it. I didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I did, but the house manager, Cotie, definitely made my stay a lot better. Especially during COVID, when things are closed, we spent a lot of time in nature, we went to different places in New Orleans like the park. Just having someone who was used to New Orleans in the house definitely made my experience better. We also had a couple of volunteers who stayed for a few days, up to two weeks. Everyone who was in the house always made me feel comfortable and everyone that came was so great.

17: So, what exactly does lowernine.org do?

AJ: Typically, during non-COVID times, they rebuild homes in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans and that means literally rebuilding homes. This summer, I helped fix a house. Specifically, I put up sheet rock, I sanded, I was helping to install flooring. I did a lot of walling and flooring and things of that nature and on my last day I actually helped dig a ditch for piping. Sometimes, they have to start from scratch when they're building homes.

17: Do you have any experience with that kind of work?

AJ: No. And I think that's one thing I really liked about lowernine.org. I didn't have any experience with building anything whatsoever, but they were extremely enthusiastic about me coming to help them. The crew leader was so nice and he showed me what to do. He helped me when I wasn't getting things right and he was very patient with me.

But that was only two days out of the week. The rest of the time I did a lot of administrative work. Writing, typing things out for them and doing things that they needed to get done that wouldn't have gotten done without a volunteer. I also worked on food distribution every other Tuesday and I think that was one of my favorite opportunities, followed by helping to rebuild the homes.

Photo credit: Aishat Jimoh
Photo credit: Aishat Jimoh

17: Tell me a little about the work you did with Feeding America.

AJ: I got a chance to meet the people of New Orleans and the surrounding areas. I did intake. So, I would go to people's cars and get their information, just to have a keeping, which is what lowernine.org called it. This would be relayed to those that supplied the food. The people of New Orleans were so sweet, so kind. I love the people of New Orleans.

17: Why was going to New Orleans so important to you?

AJ: After reading about lowernine.org online and learning about the organization and what they stand for—helping the community at large, free of charge—I just thought that I wanted to help their goals and help their vision come alive. It being in New Orleans was definitely a plus, but I still would have done it if it was somewhere else.

17: What did you learn from the experience?

AJ: I learned it's OK to not know things and it's OK to ask questions. I also learned the importance of community and community-based organizations like lowernine.org. Coming from Newark, New Jersey and just like the north in general, we don't have a large sense of community where people just wave to you while you're in the car, driving by, walking down the street. I definitely learned the importance of community.

17: What does it mean to be a Voice of Change?

AJ: For me, a Voice of Change is someone who's willing to help those that are in need or at least volunteer their time and shed light on issues that are currently prevalent. That might be housing insecurities or the importance of having non-profit and community-based organizations in the city helping those that are not as fortunate. Being able to shed light on those things is extremely important.

It's someone who is willing to put themselves out there and help out, genuinely, and be passionate about helping make a difference in the world. I'm extremely passionate about helping people and I feel like that is important in order to be a Voice of Change.

17: So, what advice do you have to others in your generation who want to make a difference?

AJ: Honestly, I would say don't be afraid to leave your comfort zone. Get up and get out. Do research about things that you want to do. That's definitely something that I had to learn, to not be afraid of going far away from home and getting out of the place where I am most comfortable and being willing to adapt to the circumstances.

17: Anything else?

AJ: Overall, the experience was great and if people are looking to volunteer, lowernine.org accepts volunteers all-year round. And it's 10 out of 10. I would definitely recommend.

Parts of this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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