Not 18 hours removed from their five-day trip to New Orleans, seven students and six adults with ties to a Germantown High after-school program were honored Tuesday for creating a dozen stained-glass windows that will decorate the entrance of a school being rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina’s devastation.
“The Stained Glass Project: Windows That Open Doors” was conducted via the after-school program at First United Methodist Church of Germantown. Mayor Michael Nutter noticed the results, and he lauded the students before, and during, an assembly at Germantown High.
“I hope you all understand that you did something very special and very important,” Nutter said of their contributions to a Morris Jeff Community School which almost closed permanently due to hurricane damage. “I’m here today because I’m very proud of you. The stained glass will help with the healing process.”
Noting the press coverage in light of past stories of flash-mob violence and other negative stories about the city’s youth, the mayor added, “Today, the good things that young people are doing will be highlighted.”
Highlighting the positive
That’s exactly what after-school program founder Barbara Mitchell and artists Paula Mandel and Joan Shrager did in the GHS “Student Success Center” prior to the assembly.
They spoke about staying at a community center near the French Quarter, where they helped distribute meals to the homeless, and eating at the famous Dooky Chase Restaurant, where they met Leah Chase, the 85-year-old “Queen of Creole Cuisine” who spoke about serving President Obama gumbo there and checked out the windows.
“Wherever we went, when people heard what we were doing, they treated us with great admiration,” recalled Shrager.
The trip, made possible by donations from Firstrust Bank and others, included meeting a tour guide who passed up paying fares to take the group on a four-hour journey around the city peppered with stories of loss in the Lower Ninth Ward.
“The bottom line is everybody was crying for five days. We called it the 100-handkerchief trip,” Mandel said. “You can see the pain that they’ve been through. We recognized that in a 60-second newsflash [society] that thinks everything is back to normal in New Orleans and moves on to J. Lo or something else.”
A trip the students will remember
From the student perspective, it wasn’t all about loss; the trip was a rewarding one, as well.
Some spoke about wanting to go back not a full day after they left. Others spoke of the inspiration to start stained-glass businesses or become a chef thanks to the New Orleans cuisine in which they indulged. And most were inspired by the resilience of a citizenry that showed no outward signs of bitterness.
GHS student Oynikansola Adekiton recounted crying when the community school’s Pre-K through third graders sang for the visitors. It was particularly poignant because Adekiton is Nigerian and they sang a song she sung as a youth in her native language.
Fellow student Na Na Yaw Effah, who suggested the program donate to a school in New Orleans, presented Nutter with a stained-glass window and a book about their project that the mayor said he’d display in his City Hall office.
“I saw firsthand the pain that Hurricane Katrina brought to people, but I also saw loving and caring. They’re still grieving about what happened in New Orleans,” he said. “This trip had an outstanding impact on my life.”
Their kindness was appreciated
It also had an impact on the Morris Jeff Community School, which is currently housed in a temporary location until a new building rises within the next three years. Currently, Pre-K to third graders attend, but principal Patricia Perkins said, “We’re growing every year until we get up to eighth grade.”
“This was a wonderful gift, both the windows and meeting the students,” she said via phone Tuesday afternoon, noting that they will place the stained-glass windows in “strategic positions that get the most light” until they become part of the new building’s entrance. “It was quite a surprise.”