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Hard Work in the Big Easy

Phil Bildner ’90 quit his New York City teaching job five years ago—but now more than ever, he’s involved in the work of educating students. Co-founder of The NOLA Tree, a nonprofit organization that brings volunteer high school students to New Orleans for service projects, he revels in guiding students in what he calls “real world learning.” By immersing themselves in post-Katrina communities, the students learn critical life lessons.

“The learning taking place is wonderful–it’s so exciting as an educator to see it,” says Bildner. “These are 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds recognizing that they can be successful community organizers.”

Before leaving the public school system to write children’s books full time, Bildner taught middle school language arts and history in the South Bronx and Upper Manhattan for 11 years. His current oeuvre ranges from picture books to chapter books to teen novels, and he is especially well known for Sluggers, a six-book baseball adventure series ( Ever the educator, he’s kept in touch with many of his former students, and it was one of these friendships that gave birth to The NOLA Tree.

In 2007, he heard from a former student who asked if he would chaperone him and 10 other students to New Orleans to help with post-Katrina recovery. (Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in August 2005, but rebuilding efforts continue still.) The students had signed on for the service project through their school, but the school would no longer sanction it. So, with dear friend Ana Galan, who would become his NOLA Tree co-founder, Bildner flew down with the group as well as two of Galan’s teenage sons, headed for the Big Easy.

“It was really hard,” says Bildner. The group slept in an abandoned warehouse with intermittent electricity and no water. They used an outdoor shower across the street, with a FEMA tarp for a curtain. That one shower, and two porta-potties, were shared by 87 volunteers.

“We all knew there would be no creature comforts,” he says. “Some kids did the job and said, ‘I did that, that’s just not for me,’ and some kids came back, three or four times, and that’s phenomenal.”

Bildner, Galan, and the students worked with local groups to do the work that the city didn’t or couldn’t do. They cleaned empty lots, gutted homes, hauled garbage. But they’ve also restored homes, gardens, and public spaces. Some of the students have returned to the project several times, getting to know the families and communities that they’ve helped, and even sharing home-cooked meals with occupants of homes they’ve restored.

In 2009, Bildner and Galan formalized the organization, securing 501c3 status for it. In 2010, they made four trips to New Orleans, coordinating efforts with local groups to do cleanup, gutting, roofing, siding, and drywall. The volunteers come from high schools across the U.S., and each trip takes 15 kids and three adult chaperones for one week.

“We get up at 5:30, eat, make lunch, show up at the job site by 7:30, work until 5,” says Bildner. “After dinner, we’re doing something in the evening, not going to sleep until 11, 12, 1 o’clock. Some of the kids rise to the challenge, pace themselves. And some kids are like, ‘Wow, this is what it means to work.'”

The experience tends to be so powerful, in fact, that Bildner advises parents about what to expect when their teenagers return to their own comfortable lives. At first, the teenagers don’t want to talk about it. “It’s visceral and intense for them, seeing the devastation and the human spirit like that,” he says. “It can be a difficult adjustment when they go home.” Months later, though, when the students open up, the thank-you letters from parents arrive, he says.

The NOLA Tree’s board of directors is composed of students and adults, including one of Galan’s teenage sons. “We don’t just want adults calling the shots,” he says. “This is youth-driven.” Currently all the coordination falls on the shoulders of Bildner and Galan–legal documents, flights, housing, van rental, insurance information, emergency numbers, permission slips for minors, notarization of emergency care. Bildner would like some help with that work, either from parents or volunteers. “We’re looking for guerilla philanthropists,” he says.

Future plans for The NOLA Tree include an emphasis on going local. “My own backyard–that’s one of the directions we’re heading in.” Ideally, the founders would see their volunteers apply what they’ve learned toward initiatives in their own communities.

And will NOLA Tree experiences show up in any of Bildner’s forthcoming books? Says Bildner, “The kids say I should write about it, and I say, ‘No, I’m waiting for you to write about it.'”