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Alumnus Starts Teen Service Organization

In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, major events can fade from the public consciousness quickly. The disastrous effect of Hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans is one such event; now that it’s been nearly five years since the hurricane itself, it’s all too easy to forget that many people in New Orleans are still in need. However, The NOLA Tree- a new non-profit organization started by children’s book author Phil Bildner- is dedicated to providing continued support to the city of New Orleans, as well as cultivating a love of community activism in the next generation. The organization brings groups of teens from Long Island (and other nearby areas) to New Orleans, where they cooperate with other service organizations from all around the globe in hands-on volunteer work.

For Bildner, dealing with young people comes naturally; the Jericho High School alumnus spent over ten years teaching in New York public schools before becoming a full-time writer in 2006. After authoring six picture books and the New York Times Bestselling Sluggers! series, Bildner felt a calling to not only continue working with young people directly, but to help train the leaders of tomorrow. Bildner began chaperoning student-volunteer trips to New Orleans, and it wasn’t long before the idea for a dedicated service organization took root. With fellow children’s book author and editor Ana Galan, young filmmaker Indiana Hoover, and some of Bildner’s former students, The NOLA Tree was born in 2009. The organization embarked on its first official trip to New Orleans earlier this spring. “It was absolutely amazing,” said Bildner of the group’s first outing. “We packed about a month’s worth of activity into one week.”

Teen volunteers do a variety of different tasks, from cleaning dirty facilities to helping build houses. Obviously, some hard labor is involved, but Bildner says he tries to organize things in such a way that each volunteer gets to work on multiple projects, so no one person will be stuck doing anything particularly difficult for very long. However, it’s not all about working in the hot New Orleans sun- volunteers have plenty of time to get to know the city in their off-hours, meaning they can partake of some of New Orleans’ famous cuisine and musical attractions. Not only do these fun opportunities help to counterbalance some of the less pleasant aspects of volunteer work, but crucially, they foster an appreciation and love of the city that will persist long after the teens have returned from Louisiana. While the work being done in New Orleans is important in and of itself, it’s the feelings of accomplishment and cross-cultural awareness fostered in the young volunteers that demonstrates the true aspirations of the organization.

“We’re planting the seeds of awareness, and a lifelong commitment to service,” explained Bildner. “Our government is no longer able to provide for us as they once did, and we have to step up.”

To find out more about The NOLA Tree or sign up as a volunteer for a future trip, visit the organization’s website at www.thenolatree.org. The NOLA Tree can also be found on many of the more popular social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter.