By Soledad O'Brien
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- What better way to tell the story of where New Orleans is going than through the eyes of young people? I've been grappling with ways to talk about the future of the city. Finally it dawned on me: Hand out cameras to young "reporters."
Almost 180,000 students were registered in New Orleans public schools before Katrina, according to the Louisiana Department of Education. As of October 2006, that number was down to 108,000.
I flew down to New Orleans after the show last week to hand out top-of-the- line DV cameras and to introduce the students to a man who knows a little something about directing, Spike Lee. Spike is like a rock star in New Orleans, because of his acclaimed documentary "When the Levees Broke" and because, well, he's Spike Lee. (Watch Spike Lee talk to New Orleans kids about recovering from Katrina )
At age 12, Sophie Boudreaux is the youngest of our group. She seems quiet and shy, until she suddenly blurts out something incredibly thoughtful about her goals for telling her story. She wants to explore why people have forgotten about New Orleans. Sophie used to live on Florida Street in St. Bernard Parish, a street where I spent a lot of time reporting right after the storm. It's a street where some of the homes were blown off their foundations; the hurricane resembled a tornado on one corner. Florida Street is also where we've returned to do more stories lately. Some homeowners have been coming back and rebuilding, in some cases, without any insurance money to help them out. Sophie says she wants to show people exactly how she survived the storm.
When I asked if their stories would be "overwhelmingly hopeful or overwhelmingly negative," I was surprised at the quick response, 15-year-old Deshawn Dabney said "overwhelmingly hopeful," and all the other students murmured in agreement. Deshawn lives with his mother, grandmother and uncle in a crowded, rundown, two-room apartment around the corner from the destroyed house his grandmother owns. Money is tight; repairs are brutally slow-going. The family is currently relying on church volunteers to patch and paint and wire their home. Still, he is hopeful.
Spike asked the kids if they saw the President's State of the Union address, almost all of them had. Deshawn said the president "didn't say anything about the hurricane, nothing about building more levees or sending money down here to help rebuild the Gulf Coast. He didn't even mention us, not one word."
Arianna Cassar, 17, told me, "I actually want to retrace the steps that I did when I evacuated." She lives near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, now, and her parents drive her to and from high school in Chalmette, Louisiana. That's about a 130-mile round-trip. Every day.
Darold Alexander, 15, tells us he already knows 10 or 15 people with Katrina stories he wants to tell. Brandon Franklin, 19, says he wants to "show guys what I used to do, prior to Katrina, catch all that, as it is now, you know, still shut down and nothing popping."
These are kids, but they're old souls, even beyond Katrina and the recovery. Jerell Edgerson says, "At times, it feels like I'm 16 and I'm on my own." She and her mom are very close, but her mom stayed in Atlanta, where there's housing and stability. Jerell felt it was important to finish high school in New Orleans. She's living with a family friend and was chosen for a Mudd jeans ad for what she wrote to the company about Katrina. She calls the modeling work a "blessing" of Katrina.
What will their stories reveal? What lies ahead for these kids who are so hopeful, and yet, at times, seem so worn out by all they've been through? The tape will tell. Sophie, our 12-year-old, says she wants to show us her home, which they're in the process of rebuilding.
Spike had some advice for the kids: "Just go out and shoot. ... Tape is cheap."
I can't wait to see these kids take his advice. I can't wait to see what these kids and their DV cameras capture. I can't wait to be surprised.
Soledad O'Brien and Spike Lee talk with New Orleans students about taping their post-Katrina experiences.
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