Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving, Indeed.

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from Olympia,

Ann and I ended our 4th trip to New Orleans yesterday morning and headed home for the holidays. Our last week there was both satisfying and fun. After seeing Kelsey, Stephanie, and Jessie DuVall off over the weekend, we went back to work on Monday at Miss Peggy Severe's home on Leonidas Street. Ann and I did the telephone installation work we'd mistakenly left out of the original plan, and performed other miscellaneous tasks in the effort to finish her place by the holidays. It's at the stage now where the last of the hand-coped baseboards are going up, the cabinets are being installed, and sinks and toilets are coming to life. Soon, we'll watch her FEMA trailer head off into the sunset, just like Miss Jessie's. I can't help but wonder just what that next phase is like for folks like Miss Peggy and Miss Jessie. After months of seeing our people, feeding our people, and watching them work, one day they will look around and we'll be gone, moved on to the next home. Ann and I have seen Miss Jessie several times since we've finished our work (most recently on Saturday, when we hung a few mirrors and assembled some new furniture for her), and it just seems like it might be a lonely time once we've all left. Kind of like having a baby. All the excitement and anticipation, then the actual event and all the oohs and aahs, and then home to care for the newborn, all alone. That solitude after all the happy commotion can be deafening.

On Tuesday, Ann and I went with Rose Romero, a really wonderful long-term volunteer who has shed sunlight wherever she has worked, to the Lazarus Project, which is a group home for HIV/AIDS patients run by the Archdiocese of New Orleans. We spent the day chatting, playing games, walking together to the local market for goodies, and so forth. These folks are all alone, each of them, with very little or no outside contact with friends or relatives. It reminded me that their need for some companionship has nothing to do with Katrina, and there are places like the Lazarus Project everywhere in this country. I'm going to find a place here in Olympia and get hooked up. Having and taking the time to spend with them is the only qualification.

On Wednesday, a group of volunteers from Chicago Cares, the Chicago-based Hands On affiliate, arrived to work with us for the day. Ann and I got to take 8 of them to Second Harvest, the mother of the food banks in southern Louisiana. They are the wholesaler, if you will, for all food donations for the region. They receive, sort, process, repack, and ship tons of food to the multiple food banks in the region. They've been in business for 25 years. In the 23 years before Katrina, they processed and shipped 14 million pounds of food. In the two years since Katrina, they've handled 80 million pounds. Do that math. There's lots of need down here, and they've increased their activity level nearly 40-fold. Our team did their part that day, as we processed 16,000 pounds of food. It was one of those really good days with volunteers, where the enthusiasm is infectious, and everyone pulls together to do as much as they can, getting more energy as they work harder and harder. A really fun day with a good group I hope to see down here again.

On Thursday, we helped lead a group of 40 volunteers who were attending the National League of Cities convention that had come to town. Our volunteers were city councilpeople and mayors from cities large and small. I was really excited to work with these people because they are influential people, and the chance to talk about the condition of the city, the snail-pace of its recovery, and the quantity of work yet to begin was a rare opportunity to broadcast a clear message to folks who can make a difference when they return home. We helped to refurbish a stadium owned by the New Orleans Recreation District, one of the few that have been reopened since the storm. Hopefully, we sent them all home with a better understanding of the state of our city. I was pretty surprised that a number of them I spoke with just had no idea how things were down here.

On Friday, Ann and I returned to Miss Peggy's home to work. Since Miss Peggy was heading off to Texas for Thanksgiving with family, she spent most of the night, and all of the morning making a complete Thanksgiving dinner for everyone at Hands On that she could invite. Erika and Petra set up a makeshift dinner table with plywood and sawhorses, Miss Peggy deep-fried a Louisiana-rubbed turkey on the stove of her FEMA trailer, served it with her special oyster dressing, gumbo, greens, and lots of other stuff I can't remember to list, then finished it off with sweet-potato pie tarts she made for each of us. I've had many really wonderful Thanksgiving dinners, but that one occupies a special place in my heart.

I want to welcome a new member to my routing list, Captain Andreas Hatch of the US Army. Captain Hatch is currently serving in Iraq, and contacted Hands On after he found us on the Web. He is coming home in the Spring, and is coming to New Orleans to work with us. His email address is Feel free to drop him a note and send your own good wishes. Captain Hatch, I wish you a quick and safe return home, and can't wait to swing a hammer with you in our adopted City soon.

I want to send special thanks to some folks who made this trip particularly special. Thanks to Mary Ellen and Reggie, who invited us to share their home and treated us like family. Thanks to Lana Corll, one of our pals from the Loyola College of Law, who tossed us the keys to her truck so we'd have transportation whenever we needed it. Lana also showered us with her friendship, attention, and New Orleans personality. Can't wait to be there for Mardi Gras with you, Lana. Thanks to Brent at Batdorf and Bronson Coffee Roasters, who loaded us up with Omar's Organic for us and for the troops. Finally, thanks to Liz, Sean, Kudi, Stephanie, Tim, Tim, Nic, Brianna, Dallas and everyone else at Hands On, who go at it day after day, mostly without a break to keep this train rolling. You all have special spots in our hearts for the work you do and the care you do it with. We love you all.

Ann and I are headed back in early January for another month on the ground. We are still looking for a matching corporate sponsor for the Tool Fund, and if you know of any organization that wants to help, please let me know. We've collected $9,900 as of today, and we are looking for a corporation that wants to participate in this Reverse-Matching grant. Usually it's the corporation that gets the ball rolling, challenging individual donors to match. We've done the matching part already. Now all we need is a business to match the money and we'll put $20,000 worth of tools in the Tool Shed. It's a chance to facilitate a whole bunch of good in one of our own American cities. Every time one of our folks picks up one of those tools, that gift gives all over again. Miss Peggy, Miss Jessie, Miss Rose, Mr. Gibson, and people like them are the beneficiaries. And so are all of us who have pulled together to demonstrate that we haven't forgotten.

My love to all. Happy Thanksgiving.


Sunday, November 11, 2007

Life in the Crescent City...

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

It has been an interesting couple of weeks here in New Orleans. I arrived on October 30th, having said goodbye to Ann in Houston when she got off the plane to work at the Houston Quilt Festival. I checked into our new bunkhouse on the corner of Napoleon and Camp that Tuesday afternoon, and on Wednesday went to work with Reggie at Miss Evelyn's home on Baronne Street, just a block from our old bunkhouse on First and Dryades. Reggie and I attempted to set a brick foundation pillar to replace one that had crumbled at the corner of this large two-story home. Brick-layers we aren't, but we gave it our best, and spent the day jacking the home up, setting temporary pillars to keep the house above the new pillar, and then went to laying bricks. At the end of the day, we had set all of the bricks that would fit. Over the next two days, however, the house settled on the temporary pillars, and then set about to compress the new pillar we had laid, basically destroying it. First time I've laid bricks, and last time I'll probably be asked to do it here.

Wednesday evening was a lot more successful. Ann sent along a bunch of candy bars for us to give to kids in our old Central City neighborhood, and Reggie, Mary Ellen, Miranda and I bought more that afternoon, then headed into the Hood after dark with 100 full-sized candy bars (as Ann and I like to say "There's nothing FUN about Fun-Sized"). Down Dryades Street we went, and found dozens of happy, decked-out kids with their moms and dads, enjoying Halloween evening in what most people consider one of the roughest neighborhoods in New Orleans. I've always hated that description about my old neighborhood here in New Orleans because it paints a one-dimensional picture of life here in Central City. As if there are no families, no kids, no elderly, no disabled people here, just criminals. The truth is, this place is full of decent human beings scrapping to make a go of it in the poorest section of a decimated city. Take a look at the pictures and you tell me who are the real victims of crime here in New Orleans. The four of us had the best Halloween night we'd ever had, and none of us even got any candy. Second and Dryades was one of the happiest places in the city that day.

The week ended with a bang. On Thursday, the 1,543 pounds of vegetable and flower seeds that were donated to the People of New Orleans by the great folks at the Ed Hume Seed Company arrived at Parkway Partners, a non-profit here that manages over 40 community gardens among their other good deeds. They agreed to be the agent for the 56 boxes of seeds that the UPS Foundation generously shipped at no charge. Off they went to a number of organizations that gratefully lined up to receive and use these seeds. An edible schoolyard at a middle school will be full of the Hume's generosity, as will community gardens and other spaces throughout the city. Jeff and Ann Hume: thanks a lot to you, your company, and to your people.

The fun just keeps on coming. On Friday, I was working for our team-leader, Liz Russell, at Miss Peggy Severe's home when we got a phone call from Miss Jessie Washington, the woman whose home Liz, Sean, and Erik had rebuilt over the past 8 months. I had worked in Miss Jessie's home in March when we had begun the process of un-doing what a bunch of half-assed contractors had done before running off with Miss Jessie's money. In August, Ann and I had helped to install ceramic floor tiles and provide other finishing touches. Miss Jessie had moved back into her home after we left in August. On Friday, Miss Jessie's excited call was to let us know that the folks were there to take her FEMA trailer away. I hopped into the car and raced to Gentilly to be there with her. This was no small honor for me, and a very big day for Miss Jessie. There were two guys there disconnecting the trailer from water and sewer, preparing to haul it away. I spoke with one of them as they worked, and he told me that they were jobbers paid by FEMA to haul these away. It's a big business these days, and more and more trailers are being removed. FEMA has been squeezing all of these jobbers along the way, reducing the per-trailer fee they pay to guys who have given up their other jobs to take this work on. The trailers must be delivered to a 500-acre site in Livonia, LA, which is past Baton Rouge, over 100 miles away. These guys now get $300 per trailer to disconnect, clean up, haul, and deliver these trailers. The lead guy told me the fuel alone now costs him over $100 per trailer. FEMA's got the needle in their arms now, though, so on they go, averaging two trailers a day. The trailers are stored at this giant site, and there are no plans to sell them yet, because of the formaldehyde problem inside them. No problem letting human beings in New Orleans live in them, but no way they can sell them once they have been removed. Go figure. Our tax dollars at work.

Ann, Kelsey, Stephanie (one of Kelsey's college roommates), Spencer, and Jessie DuVall (a pal of ours from Olympia) arrived on Sunday, and I was sure happy to see them. The new bunkhouse is what it is, but what it didn't feel like to me was home until they all arrived. Our new home is gender-segregated, and feels very different from the old, one-big-room bunkhouse we had on First and Dryades. On Monday, we split up to work different jobs. Spencer and I got to help lead a team of volunteers to paint the exterior of Miss Bird's house on the corner of Apple and Mistletoe Streets, Ann went to Miss Peggy's home to help finish bathroom tiles, Jessie went to the Singleton Charter School library, and Kelsey and Stephanie went to the Louisiana Children's Museum to help. On Monday evening, we were all guests for dinner at Miss Jessie's restored home, and enjoyed a great evening of New Orleans food and hospitality. The next day, we all went back to Miss Jessie's to provide the final tweaks to her new home--closet shelves, caulking in the bathroom, touch-up paint, curtains, etc. We banged out most of the punch-list that day, and Ann, Kelsey and I went back on Wednesday to finish up. It's all done now, our first Hands On-completed home, and it is a real joy to behold. Miss Jessie is now unpacking in her new-old home, having seen it completely ruined by 6 feet of water from the London Avenue Canal that broke a few blocks from her home, having been kept away from her home for 7 weeks by the authorities, having come back from her daughter's home in Atlanta to find her home destroyed, having used her own savings and what little insurance settlement she received to hire contractors who hosed her with really crappy work that she paid full-rate for, and then having found Hands On, with Liz, Sean, Erik, and a slew of volunteers who came day after day to provide free labor along with materials to make her house a home again. I can't properly describe what happened here, but Miss Jessie calls it "Angels who showed up to help me just because they could". That about covers it. There is something really significant going on down here. This place has been the center of so much goodwill for so many people from so many angles. Volunteers have come from all over the world to help people who have been abandoned by our government. Yet, it wasn't just the people who received the help that benefitted. Those who were helped and those who provided the help (both physical and financial) are all feeling the benefits. Ask Kelsey. Once you have done this work, you understand what I am talking about. I want all of you who have financially contributed to feel this too. Together, we are doing something important down here for our fellow Americans. By doing this just because we can, we have become part of New Orleans. Believe me, that's a really good thing.

Spencer went home on Wednesday, and we saw Kelsey, Stephanie, and Jessie off this weekend. We miss you guys. Kelsey and Stephanie especially added a lot of life and laughter to our bunkhouse.

That's more than enough for now. I'll leave you with this: most estimates now say that over two-thirds of New Orleanians have returned. That is certainly good news, but it comes with the reminder that over 150,000 citizens of this great city still haven't returned home. During the recent wildfire tragedy in Southern California, over 1500 homes were destroyed, and 7 people were killed. In New Orleans alone, over 200,000 homes were destroyed, and over 1500 killed. Yet, the White House staff was callous enough to internally-brand their image-scrubbing response to the California disaster as their "Anti-Katrina". Really.

I've got an idea for them if they want a project to help them scrub their post-Katrina image with. How about showing up here in New Orleans?

Love to all,