‘Expect less and do more’: Connie Uddo of NOLA Tree Project sees power in ordinary people, July 2016July 25th, 2016
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on July 21, 2016 at 10:30 AM
CONNIE UDDO CHANNELED POST-KATRINA ANGST INTO REBUILDING HER COMMUNITY.
Connie Uddo was a part-time tennis instructor who volunteered in her children’s schools and had what she describes as “a wonderful little life.” In 2005, she found that world ripped apart and her family living in a desolate Lakeview neighborhood ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and the floods. This led her on a 10-year odyssey of that began in May 2006, when she opened her house as a Beacon of Hope Recovery Center.
Soon, she was recruited to be director of St. Paul’s Homecoming Center, affiliated with St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, a hub for rebuilding for eight years. In 2014, she changed the center into a senior citizens social services resource center, which closed in January due to a lack of money. While still with St. Paul’s, Uddo partnered with Hike for KaTREEna, and, in 2011, took the reins as executive director, changing its name to NOLA Tree Project and adding a community service program. It now operates out of the former St. Paul’s center in the Oak Park area of Gentilly
Today, Uddo marshals thousands of volunteers to work with neighborhoods, government agencies, schools, churches and nonprofits around the city to not only replant and maintain trees, but also paint and renovate schools and playgrounds.
STORM: “We were the first of 10 families that had electricity in Lakeview. I was just living in a totally dead neighborhood, so isolated, no neighbors, filth, stench. Our car got broken into one night and I hit the bottom. My husband was like, ‘You have to find a purpose. We have a roof over our head. I have a job. Your kids’ schools are opening in January. We’re ahead of the game, Connie.’ Honestly, I turned to God and said ‘Show me how to live here.'”
MISSION: “In every urban city in America there is a decline of trees and it has to do with the three Ds: disaster, development and disease. The NOLA Tree Projectneeded to be about taking care of what we’ve planted, being good stewards of what’s in the ground.”
HOW: “Rather than planting the trees ourselves with volunteers, I started a program called the Big Treezy giveaway. Now, instead of planting 2,000 trees in a season, people are planting 4,000 in a season. We kept our count going toward our goal of planning 100,000 trees. We’re at 34,000.”
SERVICE: “Just because this is a tree organization doesn’t mean we have to stay boxed in, so I created a community outreach leg. We go into our public schools now. This summer, I’ve sent volunteers to paint classrooms, move furniture, whatever the schools need to get ready. I have four schools that are waiting for us to put in all of their landscaping, their edible school yards, their orchards.”
VOLUNTEERS: “If it were not for the volunteers, our city would never been where it is in any phase of our recovery. We wouldn’t be at 34,000 trees. Between the homecoming center and Nola Tree Project, we’ve just passed up 70,000 volunteers. Eighty percent come in from out of town. We draw volunteers from universities at spring break, all of the youth mission kids come in in the summer from faith-based organizations.”
LEGACY: “Stephanie was 15 when Katrina hit and Nick was 12. My kids, they got in there and helped me. They had to. I needed them. And they weren’t always happy. They just wanted to be like normal kids.”
LESSON: “My son reminded me of something I told him once. I was mad at them because I needed them to help me. I said, ‘I’ve been raising you wrong. I’ve been raising you to think that the world is supposed to give to you and we all want to make life easy for you. Today, it’s changing. The world is not supposed to give to you. You’re supposed to be the giver to the world. And that’s going to be the new mindset to the family.'”
RESULTS: “He just graduated from Colorado State and is taking a break to do a year-long mission trip. They go to 11 countries in 11 months, three continents. They do nothing, but nonprofit, philanthropic work. Stephanie is now a nurse. She said, ‘Well, mom, after Katrina, working with you and dad, I just knew I had to have a career that would help people.’ To me, this is the fruit of my labor from Katrina, seeing my children picking careers that are helping and serving, while taking care of themselves.”
SPIRIT: “As a competitive tennis player, there was a wanna-be champion brewing in me, but I feel like I found the true champion that I wanted to be through this work. I really applied everything I had learned from playing semi-pro tennis, from the discipline to that fighting mindset. We have to expect less and do more. You have to be ready to fight.”
SUCCESS: “When I look at Lakeview now, I’m like we won. I look at our city — and though we’re struggling with other issues — when I look at the recovery of our city, I go, ‘Hooray, we won.’ ‘That helps me be able to do the day-to-day grind and commitment.”
BLESSINGS: “There’s a great scripture that I stood on throughout the recovery: God does not put us through the fire to come out charred and burned, but to be crowned with glory and anointed with the oil of gladness. When I read that, I thought we’re not supposed to be victims. We’re supposed to come back being better, stronger, happier, joyful, resilient, deeper, enriched human brings.”
REFLECTION: “You can talk with people who have gone through cancer, divorce, death, loss. Would you wish it on anybody? Absolutely not. Could you go through it again? Absolutely not. But I don’t regret it and I am a better person for it. Katrina keeps me in check. When I’m complaining about something stupid or I’m wanting for something I don’t need, I go back to being on our knees in humility and gratitude. This works keep me there. It keeps me grateful.”
SHOUT-OUT: Robin Young, a longtime volunteer and now the sole other employee at NOLA Tree Project, says “Connie Uddo has given her heart and soul to our city and still forges on with a love and passion for New Orleans and its people.”
WHAT WILL YOU DO?
- Businesses and organizations can sponsor days of service providing money and groups of volunteers for specific projects or sponsoring a Big Treezy giveaway or orchard planting.
- Individuals can make financial donations or volunteer to be part of the adopt-a-block tree-trimming program.
- Nola Tree Project can be reached by visiting the website atNOLATreeProject.org or calling 504.415.8434.