Family Spends Annual Vacations in New Orleans – Volunteering


Editor’s Note: This week I’m featuring stories about people and organizations that are still working to rebuild New Orleans more than five years after Hurricane Katrina. See the entries from Monday and Tuesday, which detailed how a congregation from St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Pacifica, CA., has made a commitment to help rebuild New Orleans through annual work trips. Today is the story of one family from that church.

NEW ORLEANS – Berni Schuhmann’s family comes to this city every single winter, but they aren’t sightseeing or living it up at Mardi Gras. This family rolls up their sleeves to work.

Schuhmann, her two grown children, Aron and Gillian, her sister Taryn, and her sister’s boyfriend, Dave Bier, make the annual trek to New Orleans to help rebuild homes devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

From left to right: Berni Schuhmann, her sister Taryn Tewksbury, Taryn's boyfriend, Dave Bier, Berni's son Aron, and daughter Gillian Parkhurst. The family is standing in front of the home in New Orleans they worked on as volunteers in February, 2011.

The tradition started four years ago in 2007 when Schuhmann traveled with her church, St. Andrew Presbyterian of Pacifica, CA., to Louisiana for a mission trip with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

The trip left a deep impression on Schuhmann and her fellow church members, who all agreed they needed to return the following year. They also agreed they needed to invite others to come help. Schuhmann asked her family.

Her sister, Taryn Tewksbury of Tuscon, AZ., said Schuhmann was clearly passionate in her desire to return the next year to help rebuild in New Orleans.

“You don’t say no to her,” Tewksbury joked. “She’s little but she runs everything.”

Schuhmann was successful in convincing Tewksbury, son Aron, and daughter Gillian Parkhurst to come the following year. Both Schuhmann and Parkhurst are teachers in the San Francisco Bay Area; they give up winter recess for the work trips. The family has come every winter since, except Aron who missed last year due to business.

Schuhmann’s husband, Scott, has not been on the trips due to his work schedule in college athletics, she said. He cheers the rest of the family on: one Christmas he gave his wife and kids their own sets of coveralls to wear on the work trips. They were thrilled to receive them.

Aron Schuhmann said for him the trips are a way to connect with his family, since he lives in Southern California working in online advertising. It’s his only vacation of the year.

“It’s a good opportunity to spend a lot of time together,” he said.

Last month marked the family’s fourth trip to New Orleans together. They celebrated Aron’s 27th birthday during the week working on a home in the Lower Ninth Ward being rebuilt by the organization, Project Homecoming.

Tewskbury said she was a little scared before her first trip to New Orleans, because she didn’t know what to expect.

“Immediately when we got here the first year we were shocked at how much needed to be done,” she said. The rebuilding work and getting to know the homeowner of the house they were working on proved to be meaningful experience, however. And since that first trip she said the family and their fellow volunteers from St. Andrew, “totally fell in love with New Orleans.”

Tewksbury found another love in New Orleans on one of the work trips: her boyfriend Dave Bier. He had come from Pacifica with the church; Tewksbury came from Tuscon. They fell in love and managed a long-distance relationship, until Bier moved to Arizona.

Tomorrow: Project Homecoming commits to long-term recovery of New Orleans.