As Super Bowl nears, athletes and celebrities lend a hand in New Orleans through charities

Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS - Some athletes and celebrities headed to New Orleans for Super Bowl weekend are picking up hammers and packaging food for the homeless in the big game's host city.

The downtown area where most Super Bowl festivities will take place has arguably never looked better, with a renovated Superdome and resurfaced streets and sidewalks. But a closer look reveals homelessness, crime and outer-lying neighbourhoods that still bear the scars of 2005, when levees collapsed during Hurricane Katrina and inundated more than 80 per cent of the city with floodwater.

One of the city's biggest areas of need is housing. In some areas, flood-damaged houses remain untouched, gutted homes have been abandoned, and many lots are overgrown with weeds where houses once stood.

While in town, some athletes and celebrities are working with Habitat for Humanity and Rebuilding Together to help the city's rebuilding effort. Others are working with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Second Harvest, a New Orleans-based non-profit community food bank.

"Every ounce of support helps," said Jon Luther, vice-president of the Home Builders Association of Greater New Orleans, which has been working with the NFL Players Association for months to build homes in the city's Lower 9th Ward neighbourhood, which saw some of the worst flooding after Katrina.

"For them to show such interest and generosity of their time to our city, we are so grateful," Luther said.

Through the NFL's Touchdown for Homes program, three homes have been built not far from actor Brad Pitt's Make It Right houses. A ribbon-cutting will be held Friday.

This week, more NFL players are getting to work on homes in other parts of the city. Some are working Thursday with Habitat for Humanity to build a new home for a New Orleans resident in the Central City area. On Friday, they'll work on another home in the same area for a local family.

But not all the goodwill is labour intensive.

On Friday, country music star Garth Brooks will join Saints players Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles, Curtis Lofton and Deuce McAllister to help the Starkey Hearing Foundation fit more than two dozen local children with hearing aids.

On Saturday, NFL players Larry Fitzgerald, Tommie Harris, Chris Doleman, Craig Stevens, Greg Jennings, Kyle Rudolph and Brian de la Puente will help the Starkey foundation provide about 100 hearing aids to residents, including 12 local musicians.

"Because music is the heart of New Orleans' vibrant culture, and hearing is so vital to music, I can't think of a more perfect setting," said Brady Forseth, the foundation's executive director.

This is the fourth year in a row Starkey has conducted a mission in the Super Bowl host city. The group will fit residents at the Musicians Village, a rebuilding effort in the city's Upper 9th Ward headed by New Orleans native jazz musicians Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis.

Portions of proceeds from some of the big Super Bowl weekend concerts also will benefit locals.

The NFL's Super Bowl Gospel Celebration, headlined Friday night by Grammy-winning rhythm and blues singer Fantasia, was launched in 1999 and each year donates a portion of proceeds and hundreds of tickets to local and national charities.

This year's benefactors will include the Malcolm Jenkins Foundation, founded by the New Orleans Saints player, and The Sharper Kids Foundation, founded by Darren Sharper — a former Saints player and brother to former Seattle Seahawks player Jamie Sharper.

Proceeds from the DIRECTV Super Saturday Night concert with Justin Timberlake and Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson of The Roots as DJ will benefit the Shriners Hospitals for Children. It is co-hosted by Mark Cuban's AXS-TV.

"Giving back should be natural," said Questlove, who lives in New York but has played in New Orleans with The Roots for decades. "It shouldn't be like a big event or a special thing. It should be natural."

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