17-year-old Jeff Galasyn has made three trips from his home in Maine to help rebuild New Orleans homes. But he's the one who feels a debt of gratitude.
You meet dozens, scores, maybe hundreds of volunteers on the day-to-day around here. Two and a half years later, they still pour in by the bus- and plane-load from all over America. I encounter them both at work and play, and I always say the same thing: Thank you. From all of us.
Funny, though, a kid I recently met turned the tables on that notion. Jeff Galasyn, a soft-spoken 17-year-old from Maine with a scrubby blonde beard and dirt packed into his pores, took a break from gutting a house in eastern New Orleans to tell me this:
"People always say thank you to us for helping them. But I think we should be saying thank you to them -- to you all -- for not being mad at us, when nobody came right after Katrina. I just feel that when everybody says 'thank you,' that it's actually us who are in their debt. That's why I'm here. That's why I want to keep coming back, because I feel like you guys were abandoned, and I'm trying to do my part to help you guys get back your city."
Though just a junior in high school, Jeff has already participated in three volunteer missions to New Orleans since the storm. Like so many tens of thousands of others who have come here with an open mind and a pair of work gloves, this place has changed his life.
Although Jeff was born, raised and still lives in the little town of Saco in the southern tip of Maine, he will tell you that New Orleans is where he has grown up. Meeting strangers whose lives -- and houses -- were in ruin, hearing their stories, carrying their treasured belongings and memories, the stories of their lives, from their homes and depositing them in the trash, well, yes: That will change you.
"I've learned a lot of life lessons down here," he told me. "I respect people a lot more than I used to. I listen to my teachers a lot more, what they say, and I just grasp everything I can. It's really had a huge impact on me. I've definitely learned that life doesn't revolve around myself.
"Listening to people's stories down here got me thinking: Maybe people in Maine have different stories that they'd like to tell. So I started opening my ears a little bit instead of just living inside my little circle of friends; I have tried to reach outside my safety zone. I listen to people a lot more than I used to."
It's all a far cry from what went through Jeff's head back in the summer of 2005, when all the horror went down on TV. Like a lot of folks around the country, he wasn't listening so much back then.
"I didn't really know anything," he told me. "When I heard it on the news and while the storm was going on, I didn't really think much about it, which I'm kind of kicking myself for now, because I didn't really think it was that big a deal. But now that I'm down here, it's more real and it hits me harder. I understand now.
Jeff's first trip was in January of last year. Southern Maine's United Church of Christ organized a retreat and a woman from New Orleans was there and told her story. Jeff's mother immediately organized a mission to New Orleans. She brought Jeff along.
"She kind of pushed me into it," he said. "The first time, we went to the Lower 9th Ward. We did demolition. We demolded about four or five houses. I was so upset. I couldn't feel how upset these people must be. If this was my house, I would have just lost it. That really hit me hard. And I said: Wow. I have to do more than just this one trip."
So he came back last July. They did the finishing touches -- windows, trim, paint -- for an elderly woman who lived off Elysian Fields. She came every day to make them lunch and thank them.
"On July 4th, she cooked us burgers," he said. "And one day she made jambalaya. And then she made us some kind of soup."
"Soup?" I asked him. "Did it have rice in it?"
"Yes," he said.
"That wasn't soup," I informed him. "That there was gumbo."
"Yeah!" he said. "Gumbo."
Still so much to learn for this young man.
Two weeks ago, he made his third trip to New Orleans, taking leave from school. His teachers know and appreciate what he's doing and asked him to try to do a little homework, if he could.
But mostly, it's messy work. Out off Michoud Boulevard the other day, he and a team of othe young church volunteers from Maine were gutting the house of a couple of former elementary school teachers who now live in Texas.
"I think they want to sell this house," he said. "Yeah, it's dirty work, but if you're working with a good group, you can joke a lot and still get a lot done and it can be fun. But I was pulling down a ceiling and, ugh, the insulation that came down on top of me, ugh ... it was really rotten. Not good."
It was a cold morning when Jeff and I talked, so we took refuge in a van. His co-volunteers scurried about outside so I told him I didn't want to keep him from the fun. And, of course, I thanked him.
"There's one more thing I want to tell you," he said. "One of the workers here said this to me and it made a lot of sense: Demolishing these houses is saying goodbye to the old but also saying hello to the new. I thought that was really cool. It means the demolishing is the New Orleans' past and we're moving toward the future and getting these homes ready for people to live in again. I thought that was a good explanation for the things that are happening here."
And, with that, he climbed out of the van, zipped up his safety sout, put on his goggles and went back to work. One young man, one house, one story, one life.
But maybe more than that. There's a pay-it-forward aspect to all this that I can appreciate. Because, for some time, I have been living in my own comfort zone around here also. Sometimes I forget -- to choose not to remember -- that the struggle still continues in neighborhoods not my own.
I feel like I got a life lesson from a kid who got a life lesson; that I still have so much to learn myself, about the human condition, about the goodness of the American heartland, about the kindness of strangers.
That we must never forget. Never stop helping. Never stop thanking. And never surrender.
Columnist Chris Rose can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; or at (504) 352-2535 or (504) 826-3309.