New Orleans City Council member Kristin Gisleson Palmer had poignant words for members of the U.S. Olympic Committee Athletes’ Advisory Council earlier this month.
“You might feel like your efforts were only a drop in the bucket,” Palmer told them.
“But actually you are helping to fill the bucket.”
The AAC athletes partnered with the University of New Orleans’ tennis teams May 11 to restore several tennis courts and paint tennis buildings at the Behrman Tennis Center. The center is part of Behrman Memorial Park, the largest public multi-venue park on the Westbank of New Orleans.
The park was part of a community that was not hit hard by the flood following Hurricane Katrina, but it was hit by some of the hurricane’s effects.
“It was kind of overrun because it was where the tent city was set up for lot of the people who were displaced by Katrina,” said Matt Van Houten, a team handball player and chair of the AAC, which includes athletes who have represented the United States in international competition. “You can tell it was hit hard and far from being back in good shape.”
Added biathlete and ACC participant Sarah Konrad, who was visiting the city for the first time: “The park has been basically neglected and they are trying to get the soccer fields, tennis courts, just the whole area useable to make it a place for kids to play for free.”
Other AAC participants in the New Orleans project included Olympic luge athlete Julia Clukey, U.S. freestyle skier Jen Hudak, Olympic swimmer Kalyn Keller, U.S. canoe/kayak athlete Aaron Mann, Paralympic cyclist Paul Martin, Olympic fencer Cody Mattern, Olympic race walker Gary Morgan and Paralympic swimmer Trischa Zorn-Hudson, Olympic bronze medalist speed skater Allison Baver and two-time Paralympic soccer player Jon McCullough.
During the event, Palmer spoke to the group about the impact Katrina had on her district and the park.
“She told us a little bit about the area and was really happy to see what we had done in terms of improving the park just in the course of half a day,” Van Houten said. “Just going to the park you can see a level of blight that is still present in the area. It’s clear this city is far from being restored. So it was meaningful for us to be able to do something to improve the community.”
“I think that it was such a win-win situation for everyone because the community benefits, the neighborhood benefits, and the Olympians are indirectly making a great impression on the young men and women of these tennis teams,” added Burzis Kanga, University of New Orleans Coach and Director of Tennis, who has lived in the city for 30 years. “It was a good day.”
According to coach Kanga, the tennis players, who are all standout students off the court, mixed well with the Olympians.
“They are all highly motivated,” he said. “They all have to be driven, they all have to be motivated, and they are all so well disciplined. And that was the beauty in the dynamics of the whole thing.”
The project left an impression on many participants.
“The AAC has always strived to demonstrate Olympic values in our community outreach,” said Baver. “This particular project was special because it’s extremely motivational to see people come together for such a long term project and continue to make amazing change ... This is my first time in New Orleans, and the spirit here is one of a kind.”
According to Connie Uddo, director of Hike for KaTREEna, which helped spearhead the project, a common misconception is that recovery efforts in New Orleans are “finished.”
“We were so affected by Hurricane Katrina,” she said. “The damage was so extensive that we are still in many ways rebuilding and recovering and renovating... We have come incredibly far… we are doing great as a city. But if you go into the hard hit flooded neighborhoods, you can clearly see there is still a lot of work to do. We are still rebuilding neighborhoods and people’s lives. There are people still trying to get home and don’t have the resources to do that.”
The volunteer effort, Uddo said, is a foundation for recovery efforts across the nation.
“In every city, especially with the economic state of our country, there are great needs like this,” she said. “Especially for public venues where funding has been cut and they don’t have the resources just to try to maintain facilities, keep them nice, upgrade them… it’s a great thing that people are coming together to meet the needs in communities.”
Community outreach is core to the efforts of the AAC.
“This is something I take serious as part of my responsibility as a leader in the Olympic and Paralympic Movement,” said McCullough, a member of the U.S. Paralympic soccer team in 1996 and 2004. “To show that, as athletes we have the potential to make a difference by embracing the concept of Olympism, we can be part of something that does impact so many people.”
It’s a philosophy Uddo sees catching on.
“We don’t ever sit back here and wait for someone to come in and do it,” Uddo said about recovery efforts. “We recognize it and do it. That’s part of the recovery mentality but also I see this going on nationwide.”
“It was a really wonderful day,” she added about the project. “And the work was done at a great perfection level. We had a gold-medal work day.”