New Orleans garden helps teens grow, build character

SUBMITTED PHOTO Participants in the Teen Leadership, Culture and Service-Learning Tour pose at one of their stops during their bus trip to New Orleans from Aiken.

New Orleans is famous for many things, including its music, cuisine and architecture. During their recent trip to The Big Easy, participants in the Teen Leadership, Culture and Service-Learning Tour visited Bourbon Street and got to view some of the colorful city's other well-known attractions.

But what several local youths talked about most during a series of telephone interviews on Monday afternoon were their more serious experiences while in New Orleans.

Working in a community garden and meeting a Hurricane Katrina survivor who lost close relatives during the storm, they said, made the biggest impacts.

Recent South Aiken High School graduate Nicholas Golden, 18, used words like “emotional” and “touching” while recalling what he saw and heard.

The organizer of the Teen Tour was Dr. Mike Weaver, an Aiken native who is a researcher, educator, filmmaker, author and social entrepreneur. The Atlanta resident also led a Teen Tour to New Orleans from Aiken last year.

Traveling by bus, this year's Tour group of more than 40 teenagers and adults left Aiken on July 11 and returned on July 14.

Working in a community garden in New Orleans' 15th Ward was the Teen Tour's service project. Participants pulled up weeds and planted five citrus trees.

“I really felt like we helped out the community,” Golden said.

For 17-year-old Breanna Hightower of North Augusta, hearing Katrina survivor Robert Green's story impressed her the most.

“He told us everything he had to go through,” she said. “His 3-year-old granddaughter and his mom died while he was trying to save them. It made me realize how blessed I am and that I take things for granted.”

Debbie Lindburg, a teaching assistant at Oakwood-Windsor Elementary School, was a Teen Tour participant this year. She donated money to fund the trip both this year and in 2012.

“What touched me the most was visiting the Lower 9th Ward and getting to speak with a Katrina survivor (Green) and hearing his story,” she said.

Weaver would like to lead another Teen Tour next year, but is hoping to change its destination to Haiti. Washington, D.C., is his second choice.

In addition to two Teen Tours from Aiken to New Orleans, Weaver has organized two group trips to The Big Easy that originated elsewhere.

“We had an absolutely wonderful trip this year,” Weaver said. “It accomplished its mission in many different ways, but it was particularly successful in how the young people bonded so quickly. ... I'm already looking forward to next year.”

Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013.