In last week's column, I showed you how to experience the rebirth of New Orleans' French Quarter for less than $500. This week, I'm taking you to the city's other side, to neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward, which sustained worse flood damage and still have such a long way to go. While glimmers of hope peek through the occasional newly framed house and freshly sodded lawn, most of these areas remain virtual ghost towns. However, slowly but surely, volunteers are helping to transform the city. And you can help too. All you need is $500 and your time.
New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity
While there are many volunteer organizations devoted to post-Katrina rebuilding, Habitat for Humanity is among the most well-regarded nationally. It costs nothing for individuals to participate, and you can work for as many days as you wish, as long as you show up at 7:45 a.m. and stay until 3:15 p.m. The other logistics are simple: Just cover your transportation, lodging, and meals.
Because many volunteers also come to experience the city as tourists, most work sites are located in areas like the Ninth Ward, just about a 10-minute drive away from the popular French Quarter. And there's no need to worry about your carpentry skills, as anyone is welcome to help out. In fact, according to a Habitat for Humanity representative, "about 90 percent of the volunteers have never picked up a hammer before." You can register online, but note that spots for home builds fill up quickly.
For tips on finding affordable airfare to New Orleans, read my column from last week, where I list the going rate for fares departing in May from a variety of cities. At press time, fares ranged from $166 for a Pittsburgh departure to $251 from Seattle.
For hotel, perhaps the best value in town is Camp Hope, Habitat for Humanity's super affordable hostel-style accommodations located in St. Bernard. The converted school offers single-gender dorm rooms of 15 beds for people 18 years or older. Stays are a steal at $30 per night, and include three meals per day.
Here's the cost breakdown:
$251 (airfare from Seattle) + $150 (accommodations for five nights at Camp Hope) = $401 per person
Use the remaining $100 or so towards a rental car, or for taxis to and from the airport and for getting to the work site. If you want to save on transportation, you might be able to shave a few dollars off a car rental with special discounts for volunteers. Or, search for a ride-share on Habitat for Humanity's Yahoo! group.
Other hotel options for volunteers
If the camp is too much like roughing it, hotels throughout the city are discounting rooms for volunteers who show proof from a known charitable organization. For example, the Hotel Provincial is offering special volunteer rates for $79 (normally $99). Even better, the Hotel Maison de Ville has rooms starting at $99 (normally $179). Either is an excellent value, especially if you share the room with another person.
Though Habitat for Humanity doesn't endorse any particular hotel, it does provide a convenient list of hotels offering volunteer discounts. Before booking, be sure to ask the hotel for its best available rate, as cheaper prices might be available. Or, look for general specials listed on NewOrleansOnline.com, the Official Tourism Site of the City of New Orleans.
Also, remember that meals aren't likely to be included in hotel rates, but some restaurants like Honey Baked Ham (Metairie location) will deliver boxed lunches to the work site for less than $10 (plus a five percent discount for volunteers). Also, local po' boy shops, where you can eat for around $5, are peppered all over town.
Other volunteer organizations
While I've profiled Habitat for Humanity, there are plenty of other volunteer groups such as Hands On New Orleans, with similar accommodations to Habitat's Camp Hope, plus three meals and ground transportation to the work site for only $20 per day. Other options include Rebuild Together, which focuses on helping low-income households, and Common Ground Relief, providing short- and long-term support in rebuilding communities.
For a source of more information and a list of reputable nonprofit organizations, visit NewOrleansOnline.com. Also, Katrina Krewe's CleanNO.org provides links to a host of other community projects from gutting and rebuilding houses to working at animal shelters or replanting trees.
Have more to add? Comment (see below) on your favorite New Orleans volunteer experience or offer tips for visiting New Orleans. Or, feel free to suggest a new Escapes Under $500 destination.