Contributed by Meghan Cox/The Mirror

An African American male nearing the age of 60, wearing jeans and an old T-shirt that conceals a pot belly, opens his mouth to reveal a Southern twang and a low throaty laugh.

An unlikely idol for college students.

In a time when students take inspiration from

blogs, the latest house music, and – gasp – reality TV, how did one man, who calls the poorest section of New Orleans home, capture the hearts and minds of young men and women across the country?

“Where y’at?”

The voice of Ward “Mack” McClendon welcomes us to a colossal warehouse, resembling an airplane hangar, where he has worked and lived since August 2007.  It is his home and the home of the Lower 9th Ward Village, a community-driven and community-led nonprofit organization and neighborhood center.  It is my first day in New Orleans on an alternative spring break trip with other Fairfield University students.  We enter unnoticed. Mack seems busy; there is always something to do at the Village. There are other student volunteers and he is speaking with them, handing out tasks left and right.

He leads us outside of the warehouse where a group of college students are in the process of painting a mural on the front of the building. The words “family,” “dream,” and “future” are intertwined with the smiling faces of Mack and other members of the community.

It is a community with a strong sense of identity. A community where people sit on their porches and welcome strangers from far-away colleges with an appreciative smile and a wave.  Yet it has the eerie feel of a ghost town, where empty lots are overgrown with grass and front steps lead to a nonexistent front door.  Mack’s personality captures the identity of this community; resilient, hopeful, genuine, and determined to never allow a disaster affect another community in the same way again.

Standing with his back towards the mural, he begins to tell us his story; one that has been told hundreds and hundreds of times since its initial telling.  He speaks and we are under his spell. He pauses, searching for the perfect word to say, shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head as if Katrina struck the city just a week ago.

“The best thing that ever happened to me was Katrina.”

As a self-described private person, Mack worked as a telephone technician and was an avid antique car collector before Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.  He was in the process of renovating his “dream house” in the Lower 9th Ward and had moved all of his belongings to the first floor in order to install natural hardwood floors, he says cringing at the memory. So when the levees broke and the water flooded in and swept away his cars and his dream home, he believed God had a personal vendetta against him.

Two years after Hurricane Katrina, Mack was still searching for a distraction from the devastation in his neighborhood.  He looked into buying an old warehouse as a garage to work on old cars. However, as he walked into the warehouse he had a different vision for the space: a community center, a village.

Mack believes that we spend 85 percent of our lives trying to find our purpose, but his “dropped on him like a ton of bricks.”  He never saw himself as an inspirational community leader, as a man who has been featured in articles on a national and worldwide level, nor as a visionary of plans for future disasters. But when he saw his own community suffering, he thought to himself: how could he enjoy his antique cars?

Providing a voice to those who have been devastated by Hurricane Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward Village empowers community members and gives hope for the return of many who have been displaced.  Mack says that 75 percent of the community was displaced after Katrina.  He wants them back and wants them to feel like they are welcome back.

Contributed by Mikaela Tierney/The Mirror

Over the years, Mack’s mission has changed from recovery to studying disaster. Speaking at Fairfield University on Oct. 6, he pointed to the group of students in attendance and said “this is the answer to disaster.”

His current goal is for people to change their perception of catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina. “Yall gonna think I’m crazy, but I want you to look at disaster like hittin’ the lottery,”  he said.

He has created a “blueprint” of ideas of how people should embrace disaster as an opportunity for a community to improve. One idea is to create a program through which volunteers sponsor a family affected by a Hurricane Katrina-like catastrophe.

Mack believes if people know that a sponsorship program exists they will be more willing to come back to their homes.  He is currently in the process of writing a book in which he explains his blueprint ideas, with a completion date of early next year.

Mack’s plans for disaster have met some criticism.  Erin Sullivan, a Fairfield University sophomore, was inspired by his story, yet felt that “his idea was not really plausible in the world today.” The reality of putting his blueprint into action may be stalled by it’s potential impossibility but also by the Village’s lack of funds, which Mack struggles with every month.

Dr. Jocelyn M. Boryczka, a politics professor at Fairfield University, taught a seminar class on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans last spring.

The class volunteered at the Village, painting the mural on the front of the building.

She describes Mack as “representative of all kinds of people in the world who do really hard work everyday on behalf of their communities.”

“His ability to mobilize other people to recognize in their everyday life that they can do things to benefit others is a gift,” Boryczka says.  It is a gift that draws people to him.

According to Mack, 50,000 people have volunteered at the Village since its creation.  ‘

Many have been young adults on alternative spring breaks who have been touched by his genuine spirit and compelling honesty.  They are inspired to live as Mack lives.

As he said: “Up until Katrina I just existed.  After, I was truly living.”


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