The task was laborious but clear-cut: Shovel out sweet potatoes from the back of the tractor trailer, for distribution among the needy.
But, likely, no one accounted for the heat and humidity of a New Orleans summer day, most of which seemed especially blanketed during the cleanup and recovery after Hurricane Katrina.
“With the doors being open (on the tractor trailer), (and) it wasn’t refrigerated,” Nick Easton said. “So it got a little hotter, they started to cook and smell a little bit.”
More accurately, they started to turn into yams. Unusable yams, at that, with at least one surprise.
“I’m not sure if any of (the potatoes) were salvageable, but they were cleaning out the trailer,” said Rob Hinman, pastor of Lenoir Presbyterian Church in Lenoir, N.C., chuckling at the memory. “(Easton) was in there with our youth minister, who was also on the trip.
“And the closer they got to the end of trailer, the more it was mush and not actual potatoes. And at one point, a rat ran out. I’m told that the big guys in there shoveling screamed like girls. But that was a nasty job, a nasty day. But he did it well.”
The New Orleans Saints will be counting on more yeoman work from Easton in his second look at New Orleans, this time as an unrestricted free agent signee this offseason to play center and guard. He is one of two major offensive line additions this year (Texas A&M center Erik McCoy was drafted in the second round), expected to help offset the retirement of center Max Unger, and to provide needed, quality depth for the unit.
The five-year veteran signed a four-year deal in March, so he’ll be staying in town a bit longer than his initial weeklong visit in 2007, when, as a ninth-grader, he was a member of his church’s mission group that came to New Orleans to lend a helping hand (and shovel) after Katrina.
Understandably, Easton was a tad naïve to the situation, even after having viewed it from afar.
“I was always part of my church youth group growing up,” he said. “So for me, it was an opportunity to go out with the group, get some fellowship there. Honestly, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, as far as the devastation and everything.
“When you’re 14 years old, you only have so much world perspective. So that was a real eye-opener, coming down here and seeing everything.”
The mission group, and others like it, heeded a call to action placed by Son Servants, which is a subsidiary of a bigger youth ministry called Youth Conference Ministry. Son Servants does conferences and missions.
“We organize groups all throughout the summer to go to different locations and do mission projects,” said Danny Dotson, director of the mission element of Son Servants. Dotson said Son Servants originated in 1982, and made its first outreach to New Orleans after Katrina.
“After Katrina, we were in New Orleans,” he said. “There are still groups in New Orleans, still doing projects for schools and individuals.
“We create a schedule of events for the summer and then we post that out to churches who have been with us in the past, plus additional groups. And then they contact us and say, ‘OK, I see you have a trip going to New Orleans this week, and we want to go.’ And then they sign up and register their group and they become part of the trip.”
“It is a Presbyterian-rooted mission agency, so we connected that way,” Hinman said. “There are different ways that you determine where you’re going to take youth on a mission trip.
“We had gone in 2006 (to New Orleans) and had seen the incredible devastation that was still a year later, and we knew that coming back in ’07, there would be plenty to do. So the first year, we just did things like wrapping refrigerators with duct tape and hauling them out to the street to make sure nobody got poisoned. The second year, we actually did a lot of ripping up.”
Of all the places Easton could have been, and all the things he could’ve been doing, he chose to help with that process.
“Nick was a great guy,” Hinman said. “He and his older brother, who was also on that same trip, were the same age as our two sons. So they were in and out of our household and all of our kids played football together.
“Nick was very active in the church. There was no doubt about it that he was here every week in youth ministry and the work that we did back home. Nick’s a big, tough guy but he’s got a great heart for people.”
Frankly, that was what New Orleans needed at the time. With physical memoirs washed away or ruined by the flood, compassionate outsiders like Easton were critical to the recovery process. For Easton, much of the help provided was physical.
“I just remember, all of the houses looked in pretty bad shape,” Easton said. “So what we were doing was going in, ripping nails, taking it down to the studs. There were a couple of houses that were more on the rebound, where we were going in and sand and drywall, too.”
“We were in the Ninth Ward, we were also down in some of the old areas that were heavily flooded downtown,” Hinman said. “I remember one of the places – it was somewhat ironic, that I was taking teenaged youth with a church group to a brothel. It was a building that had been a house of ill-repute (laughing). And we went in there to clean out and clear out.
“A lot of the work that we did was taking buildings down to literally the roof; they were 2x4s in the walls. When we walked away from some of those houses it was the slab, a bunch of 2x4s going up, and then the roof. And nothing inside, just the roof on top of the house and the shingles on top of that.”
The group was housed by Woodland Presbyterian in Algiers. Woodland also prepared meals for Easton’s group.
“I remember at the end of a long day, spending all day outside in the summer, there’s nothing better than coming back to an air-conditioned room,” he said. “So being able to have that, have the welcoming people, being able to eat good food and have good fellowship, it was awesome.”
Today, as a full-time Saint, Easton truly has an opportunity to witness another awesome sight.
“When you’re on the ground, you only see the neighborhood you’re in,” he said of his first visit. “It’s hard to magnify that into thinking the devastation covered the whole city to that same scale.
“Being here now, and seeing the scope of the city and how far it’s come, it’s truly amazing.”