Wednesday, December 17, 2008
By Isaac Arnsdorf
When Westley Bayas, who grew up in New Orleans, left for college, he said he never planned to come back. He fully expected to live somewhere else. But today he is the director of community outreach for Phoenix of New Orleans, a rebuilding non-profit named after the mythical bird that is reborn from ashes.
Asked what changed his mind, he answered immediately, “Katrina.”
He was a student at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge at the time. The gym was converted into a makeshift triage center, and Westley volunteered to help. “I realized I had to go back home,” he said. “I wanted to play whatever part I could to make it into the New Orleans I remembered.”
He remembers the look and the feel, the neighbors shooting the breeze on their porches. But after Katrina, he saw overgrown grass, and blocks and blocks of emptiness. He wants to help bring the old New Orleans back.
Hopefully a little better, he added. At Phoenix, he helps displaced homeowners get back into their homes. Now he expects to stay for the foreseeable future. “I need to stay,” he said. “I’m taking part in a lot of things to improve the city and push it in the direction that I want.”
As New Orleans rebuilds, it has opportunities for young people to get jobs for which they would not otherwise be qualified, to start businesses or to “blaze their own path,” Westley said. “New Orleans is a place where young people can come and prove themselves.”