It is the third year a benefit concert has been organized to help them, and the event has grown along with the program, forcing organizers to find a larger venue.
Smith’s appearance will mark the first time in more than 30 years that the Larcom Theatre has hosted performers other than Le Grand David and His Own Spectacular Magic Company. The company stopped appearing at the venue last spring, after founder Cesareo Pelaez died.
The students’ volunteer work in New Orleans is coordinated by the St. Bernard Project, a nonprofit that was founded to help the city rebuild after Katrina.
“We do anything from sheet rocking and gutting houses to mold remediation,” said Rick Doucette, who runs teen services at the Y.
The labor the teenagers provide isn’t skilled, but it is a vital step in the rebuilding.
Doucette went to New Orleans within a year after the hurricane hit, and what he saw left an impression.
“You go past block after block after block of concrete steps leading up to nothing,” he said.
“The lower 9th Ward is in St. Bernard Parish. They are literally in a basin, a kind of bowl, 15 feet below Lake Pontchartrain on one side, and 20 feet below sea level on the other. There were 50,000 people living in that area before Katrina. After that there were six homes deemed habitable.”
The devastation fell on a part of the city where poverty had already taken a toll, making recovery that much more of a challenge.
“This is the poorest area, where people who lost their homes were living in shotgun houses,” Doucette said, referring to a narrow, rectangular style of house usually no more than 12 feet wide. “They might have gotten $30,000 for insurance, and you can’t rebuild a home for $30,000.”
He has seen major improvements to businesses in the district since his first visit, but there are still 100 families waiting to get into homes, and people who have been living in FEMA trailers for six years, he said.