It’s Thursday, Day 3 here in St. Tammany West. In the middle of our trip, I wanted to take the opportunity to ask the workers about their experience on the trip so far. So, this is Real Break New Orleans, as told by Eyvonnka Rizkallah, Maria Nasser, Meredith Ashton, Rose Ansara, James Jabbour, and Ben Solak.
“It’s a really good mix. You get to do service but you also get to learn about an area I feel like a lot of people know about but not the extent that people should. I know I’ve learned a lot about Katrina and the people here and how it affected them even though it was so long ago.”
“You’re not going internationally. You’re helping people who are in your country who may have been hidden in the dark.”
“Seeing as though I don’t have an OCF at my local university, this was my opportunity to get involved.”
“It’s a nice time to reevaluate where you are in your semester, by serving someone besides yourself. You also have the opportunity to enhance friendships and create new ones through the dioceses. Meeting new people through our faith can be difficult—we only have a few events throughout the year. But this is a unique, intimate setting. The group is small and you’re serving where you are. It makes it different.”
“It’s really like eye-opening, because I had no idea. Like seeing pictures and hearing things are one thing, but if you come down and you see all the damage in person that’s still here…it’s ridiculous.”
“I really liked using the electric screwdriver. No, wait. That’s not what it’s called. I don’t know what it’s called. The screw thing.” (drill)
“It’s an intimate way to get to know a community that isn’t yours, and to be an Orthodox presence in that community is really cool, to share your faith. It’s much different than just going to New Orleans and going to restaurants and going to a party. You get to be directly in the neighborhood, be with the people who live here, get to know them and what matters to them. And that’s a really different experience than you’d get on a more traditional spring break trip.”
“The culture is so much different here from where I lived.”
“I thought it would take the mission trip aspect of things I’ve done in other places around the world and put it in my own country, so I could help people where I live, and I really liked that.”
“I was really excited about building homes for people who really need them. Putting our blood, sweat, and tears into everything we do. It’s a great way to bond with people who are from New Orleans. At the end of the day, you know that your hard work was going to contribute to something even bigger.”
“I’ve really loved eating the food. I’ve probably gained like ten pounds. But overall, great experience. I’d definitely do it again.”
“I wanted to go to Real Break New Orleans. It’s more fulfilling than going to Miami and partying. This is definitely real stuff. That’s why it’s called Real Break.”
If you want to follow Real Break NOLA, or any OCF event, be sure to follow OCF’s Snapchat @OCFMinistry. My caption game is fire.
As a junior in college, I knew firsthand what it meant to be a stressed student. My classes were getting harder, the future was up in the air, and I felt further from my faith than ever. With the typical college distractions of friends, relationships, social outings, and overall societal pressure, it is often easy to feel sidetracked from keeping God the main reason for everything.
As I embarked on my first Real Break trip, I was not too sure what my expectations should be. I just knew I wanted to come back with a re-focus on God, and for that trip, I will be forever grateful to OCF for Real Break because it more than exceeded my expectations.
The Real Break New Orleans trip is a partnership with International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) to help re-build houses lost during Hurricane Katrina. I thought I knew how tragic Hurricane Katrina was from the media, but I did not expect the chills sent down my spine when we saw it all firsthand. Almost twelve years later, houses are still dilapidated and families are still displaced.
The amount of pain that this city endured is apparent on almost every corner of the neighborhoods that were hit the hardest. It’s been so long, yet my heart was still breaking for this catastrophe. I never want to know what it means to have your entire livelihood and loved ones taken from you in a matter of hours, yet too many residents of New Orleans in 2005 knew this feeling.
For almost an entire week, we worked with Habitat for Humanity to re-build two houses for families with children. It was perhaps some of the most fulfilling days of my college experience. The stories behind the families that were about to live in these houses were absolutely heart-wrenching, and to know that our manual labor could help them even just a little bit, put smiles on our faces. Along with working on the houses, we had cultural immersion experiences in which we visited an exhibit that broke down every minute of the days of torture on the city during the hurricane.
Perhaps the most defining moment of our trip was a night of visiting a local Orthodox parish. The hurricane caused the entire church to flood almost up to four feet. When the priest finally opened the doors days later, an icon of the Virgin Mary floated towards the doors first, the front completely unstained. It was inexplicable, and close to impossible. It is miracles like this that make us realize the glory of God is so much greater than we will ever begin to comprehend.
That night, on the van ride back to where we were staying, we all were quiet and speechless trying to understand the story we had just heard. We began to sing “Down to the River to Pray,” and the camaraderie of that environment was a moment I’ll never forget. There is something so glorious about having your best friends surrounding you as the night comes to a close, forgetting about all else, that makes you feel like Jesus is sitting right next to you. The smile on my face was so big in that moment, and I’ll never forget what it felt like to have all I needed right next to me.
After our trip and our return to reality, I learned that no one else in my life mattered as much as God does. He is my reason for everything, and His plans are so much greater than I will ever know. So all we can do is treat others with respect and kindness, because moments like Hurricane Katrina really put into perspective how precious every minute is. If you have the opportunity for a Real Break trip–do it. Go with all your heart, and the biggest smile, and treat others during your experience the way God would want. I promise you, you will be changed and your heart will thank you.
A dog lover and wanderlust traveler, Isabella is currently a senior Levine Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She started her university’s OCF chapter three years ago, and now has 50 OCF members who are as close as family. When she’s not behind her Nikon, or volunteering at Ryan Seacrest Studios at Levine Children’s Hospital, she’s working as the Public Relations Student Leader for the OCF national Student Leadership Board.
Before I begin describing my experience in New Orleans, I would like to express my deep gratitude for what Real Break allows for Orthodox college students. It gives us the opportunity to serve and to witness the lives of those in need, spiritually and or physically. It has been an experience that I have been craving as I have felt that I have not been putting all of my efforts to serve God during my free time. Through prayer and trust, it actually happened. Glory to God for all things!
When we arrived in New Orleans, I knew a few of the members coming (including my UNCC chapter co-president Isabella Calpakis) but was also surprised by the amounts of connections the other members had with me! This includes our trip’s priest and fellow Jersey Shore boy, Father Stephen Vernak. By then, I knew that this was going to be a great week. Our mission to serve with IOCC (International Orthodox Christian Charities) began quickly through the exposure of the distraught neighborhoods of damaged and demolished properties that align the highway. Hurricane Katrina has still left a mark on the city, which had given us the incentive as to why this trip is more than a vacation. Visiting the Lower Ninth Ward, the neighborhood that experienced the most flooding, felt like a scene from a movie because of the destroyed properties and learning how the government had to step in to discover deaths within each home (marking the numbers on the front doors). Glory to God, not all of the neighborhoods had suffered much, such as the Downtown and thriving French Quarter, but the pain that the citizens had experienced was evidently traumatizing.
Our work as a team was done in the Mandeville suburb across Lake Pontchartrain, the body of water on the New Orleans edge. Before each workday, we began with prayer with Matins service and ended each day with Vespers, unifying our team as one body of Christ. We, with IOCC, worked with Habitat For Humanity to continue construction of two houses for low-income residents. Even though I was skeptical that I would be of any help, we all developed a good system to construct efficiently, encouraging each other along the process. What Habitat For Humanity does for these residents was also amazing to hear. Instead of offering the homes as a handout, they educate residents with classes that range from budgeting to landscaping. I saw this as a Christian virtue, to raise those who are in need by teaching responsibility. Seeing the change from our arrival to the last workday was a beautiful product of our labor through Christ’s love.
What also brought perspectives of the remnants of Katrina to New Orleans were our three visits to the city. The Katrina exhibit at the Presbytere Museum showcased the local stories of trauma and resilience. Another night, we visited St. Basil Antiochian Orthodox Church and heard from Father Paul Nugent as to how the Faith was tested but yet defined the trust and hope for the growing community. Our last visit included visiting Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Here, we listened to parishioner, Maggie Mag, about the history of Orthodoxy in the United States and how the New Orleans parish was the first established church in the lower United States (not including the earlier churches on the West Coast/Alaska). She, along with Father George Wilson, discussed the impact of what Katrina had done to their community, but how the grace of God had brought them back to a beautiful large community.
Hearing the pain and resilience of the citizens, especially the Orthodox residents regarding the Faith during those times, brought me hope for their community. It is incomprehensible for us as humans as to why these events happen, but it is our trust in the Holy Trinity that we all could overcome the battles that we face in this life, in order to reach salvation with Him. Katrina has also affected me after this experience. It has allowed me to serve God by aiding to those who need the work of our hands.
Nicholas (Niko Wilk) is a senior studying Architecture at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte. He is the chapter co-president for OCF at the university. He loves exploring cities and regions, as well as singing and keeping active. His goal to study Urban Planning in grad school.
Students think back on their Real Break trips from last spring.
Real Break Alaska 2015
“Through this mission, God revealed to me Orthodox Christians pursuing the Truth in every aspect of life. It filled me with joy to be shown that at every corner of the United States, despite Orthodoxy being an overwhelming minority, God is worshiped in humble obedience to the Apostolic Tradition handed down by the Fathers of the Church.”
–Oliver Filutowski, Alaska
“God works in ways we may not always understand, but He gives us the strength to carry on and make life meaningful through fellowship, faith, friends, and family; I consider my Real Break group to fall under each of those categories.”
–Alexandra Mamangakis, Alaska
“I often think about the beautiful, humble people I met there when I feel alone and discouraged. Their smiles and hugs still warm my soul.”
-Elizabeth Clark, Romania
“We all thought we were going on a trip to give our help to these children, but we were all wrong. They did not really need any help from us. They gave us all so much more than we could’ve given to them. The light of the Holy Spirit radiated from the hearts of these children and poured onto us. Real Break is an experience for which I am eternally grateful.”
–Michaela Connally, Romania
Real Break Guatemala 2015
“Sometimes as an Orthodox young person, I wonder how it is possible to fulfill Jesus’ command to serve others and “love our neighbors as ourselves”. Whether we know it or not, as college students, we are already equipped with the things necessary to allow us to do this: time, energy, enthusiasm, and support of the members of our parishes.”
-Julia Goussetis, Guatemala
“Some of my favorite moments were spent as we explored the City and visited two beautiful Orthodox Churches. I grew so much in my Faith that week through the amazing people I met, which I will always be grateful for.”
–Maria Phyrillas, New Orleans
“Even though there is still such destruction from the hurricane, everyone there radiated such joy and warmth about life. I learned so much about myself and the importance of giving back to people who need it most.”