New Orleans, La - There is much to do at the Morial Convention Center. Heidi Hagstrom is the Program Director for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Youth Gathering. She and 2,000 volunteers are getting ready for the arrival of 35,000 young people in New Orleans.
The group was here in 2009 and is returning on Wednesday. "We feel like we are part of your community and we know that there still are needs," said Hagstrom. "There are others who may have forgotten, but we have not forgotten."
Organizers say representatives of the group have spent the last two years visiting New Orleans and the area to determine the most urgent needs. They say they found one of the biggest issues is literacy and the need for books. The ELCA Youth Challenge's goal is to bring a million books to the area. "Not just any books," said Hagstrom. "We've specifically talked to teachers in the Jefferson Parish School District and the Recovery Schools District to say, what books do you need?"
Kelly Schulz with the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau says their return is a big deal for the city as they will be helping in many ways. "Just about every local charity you can imagine is going to benefit from the generosity of these students," said Schulz.
Schulz is encouraging everyone in the city to welcome the young people and thank them for their sacrifice. "Just tell them thank you. Say welcome to New Orleans. Honk your horn. Wave at them. Just make them feel really welcome in our community and thank them for this incredible gift of their time and service to New Orleans," said Schulz.
The theme of this year's visit is "Citizens with the Saints." "We were here in 2009 and we are coming back feeling like we are you," explained Hagstrom. "We are part of you and that's one of the things we want to teach our young people. That we don't exist on this Earth alone. That who you are, makes us who we are."
Organizers say most of the youngsters with the group are from small towns in the Midwest and along the East Coast. They say for many, this will be their trip out of state and some will ride in the an airplane for the first time.