By: Darian McKenzie, Program Director, Mitzvah Corps New Orleans
As an elementary teacher by day, I know the value of summer months. Teaching requires patience and commitment in a way that puts those who do it well in a position to need a break. And for many people, Mitzvah Corps is not exactly what you’d consider a break. After spending two summers on staff with Mitzvah Corps New Orleans, I’ll be the first to tell you that it’s hot, humid, and jam-packed with service work and social activities. But that’s just scraping the service of what this program is, because while it certainly is busy, it truly refreshes and recharges me.
For each of us, Mitzvah Corps is another part of our personal story, another piece of our puzzle that hopefully leaves us each a little better off than when we arrived. With participants coming from all corners of the continent, there will undoubtedly be differences that exist within us when we arrive on Sunday. For some, this will be their first time away from home. Some have never been to New Orleans. Some have volunteered in other communities before. Some have traveled the world. Regardless of where we’re coming from though, what joins us is our decision to spend this time together in New Orleans.
The oversized duffel bag I’ll fly with tomorrow is the same one I’ve brought down each summer, but the person schlepping it is different. I’d like to think that as I’ve gotten a little older, I’ve grown a little wiser. Beyond that, however, Mitzvah Corps has made me more compassionate, braver, and aware. I’ve learned that there are emotional risks worth taking and that communities that seem different than my own are driven by similar dreams and ideals underneath; I just need to take the time to ask questions and listen to the answers. I’ve learned the importance of being intentional in the way I live my life; I may never be a famous name associated with civil rights, but I’ve learned that behind every name are the choices they’ve made to live in a way that celebrates differences, rather than hides from them.
Just as I’ve experienced immense change through Mitzvah Corps, I know this year’s group will too. While I absolutely love the two weeks we spend together in New Orleans, oddly enough, one of my favorite parts of this job is what happens after; it’s seeing the risks people are now comfortable taking and the friendships they’ve made. It’s seeing how a program that lasts a brief two weeks can truly change your life.