NEW ORLEANS -- Gospel music filtered over from the adjoining chapel as the volunteers from Marine Forces Reserve put on their plastic gloves and began setting the long, white tables. Some Marines cut cakes; others made plates piled high with steaming stuffed chicken, corn and rice; still more served out salad into hundreds of bowls and filled cups with ice. All were working together to provide for the physical and spiritual hunger of the New Orleans Mission’s guests, the community’s hungry and homeless.
The NOM is a privately-owned, non-profit organization that is funded entirely by donations and relies heavily on its volunteer staff. The mission provides counseling, religious services, food, overnight boarding and medical care for the city’s impoverished.
The Oct. 10 trip was the Marines’ second trip to the NOM, which serves many of the city’s homeless and needy who often shelter under the Pontchartrain Expressway, which connects the East Bank and West Bank of New Orleans over the Mississippi River. For each trip, a group of roughly 12 to 15 Marines traveled to the NOM, which sits next to the expressway, after spending their workdays in uniform.
“In New Orleans, there’s a really big need for volunteers,” said Capt. Samuel Baumer, volunteer coordinator for the 4th Marine Logistics Group. “There’s a need for people to get out of their comfort zone and go out and just help other people.”
Once the tables were set and the food served, the Marines and the rest of the volunteers at the NOM, directed by the NOM volunteer coordinator Louis Barron, guided groups of the city’s homeless and needy to their designated areas. According to Barron, the mission runs around the clock, from serving breakfast in the morning to sheltering guests at night in houses owned by the mission. All of these ventures are staffed primarily by volunteers.
“We rely on our volunteers more than 100 percent,” Barron said. “I love to have the Marines come out here, so they get to see what we do here and what we are about. We want people to come out. We want people to volunteer. Our volunteers are what make the Mission.”
Sgt. Joresa Burnett, the MARFORRES comptroller, fiscal section non-commissioned officer in charge, has made a habit of participating in Toys for Tots, the Special Olympics and many other volunteer opportunities around New Orleans. The Oct. 10 trip was her first trip to the mission, and she said her motivation for volunteering there was the same as volunteering at the other events she has attended.
“It helps you build character, and it helps you understand where other people have come from,” Burnett said. “I think volunteering and doing jobs outside of work makes work more enjoyable.”
Master Sgt. Rebecca Zahrndt, MARFORRES volunteer coordinator, said that volunteer activities have been left unaffected by the government shutdown, unlike all other official community relations events, such as Toys for Tots. She emphasized how important it is to stay active in the local community and the effects on Marines’ morale.
“If we can give them any form of hope, to step up, to make the communities better, to have a better goal in life, then let’s do it,” Zahrndt said. “Let’s help Marines get happy. Morale is everything. A happy Marine is a good Marine.”
The volunteers spent the rest of the dinner serving and chatting with the NOM’s guests, known as “disciples.” After the last disciple filed out of the dining room with a full stomach and full spirit, the Marines cleaned up the last traces of their efforts while motivating each other to be ready for their next endeavor.