Monday, November 24, 2008

Planting a Seed

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from Olympia,

I arrived home on November 20th, having spent the past three+ weeks on a variety of projects. While Ann and I were here this time, we got to witness the arrival of more than 1000 pounds of vegetable and flower seeds donated to the people of New Orleans by our generous friends at the Ed Hume Seed Company. This is the second year the Hume Family and their employees made a huge donation of seeds to help New Orleanians. This year, the good folks at Federal Express (thank you Lisa Daniel) donated shipping services and hauled two complete pallets of seeds from the Hume warehouse in Puyallup to the warehouse of Parkway Partners in New Orleans. Parkway Partners then used its volunteers and staff to sort the seeds by type and distribute them to community and school gardens and to other grassroots organizations like the Food and Farm Network that distribute the remainder. Flowers and vegetables grown all over this city in the past year came from Hume seeds and Hume generosity. Parkway Partners has dubbed the coming harvest the "Hume Harvest" in honor of the Hume's generosity.

People down there have noticed. Parkway Partners publishes a periodic newsletter and featured the seed donation in its latest issue. After it was published, one reader sent this along to Jeff Hume:

Dear Hume Seeds,

I was just reading my newsletter from Parkway Partners in New Orleans, Louisiana and I saw that your company has, for two years, donated seeds to the gardeners of New Orleans.

Thank you for keeping us in mind in such a thoughtful and important way. Of the many miserable thoughts I had during our evacuation from the flooded city during August and September of 2005, one was of all the beautiful gardens here in Orleans Parish. Your generosity really will make a difference here.

Thank you.

Cordelia Cale

(If you are ever down this way drop me a line before you come. I'll buy you lunch!)

Trust me, Jeff, when she offers you lunch, she means it. That's the way folks are down there.

Our eighth trip to New Orleans is now in the books, and each one of them has been buoyed by the generosity of others. In addition to the Humes and all of you who have made financial donations to help our fellow American citizens in New Orleans, we've made each trip down here a bit more productive and happy with coffee donations that have been sent by our pals at Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Company here in Olympia. Thanks to Larry, Cherie, Skot and everyone else there who have made sure we've been fortified for each visit.

Happy Holidays to you and to your families. We hope 2009 brings you health, success and happiness, and that New Orleans and its people are showered with the help they so badly need 3+ years after they refused to let Katrina blow them away.

Our Love to All,

David and Ann
Dad and Mom

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Falling Through the Cracks

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

Ann and I made a last-minute decision to make our latest trip to New Orleans. Honestly, the motivation to come now was two-fold: We wanted to be on Dryades Street in our old Central City neighborhood for Halloween to cement our tradition begun last year to give candy to the kids who live there, and Ann wanted to spend some time helping Lana Corll, our great friend and benefactor, finish setting up her finally-restored-from-Katrina-flooding first floor sewing and quilt room. We knew there would be other work for us to do while we were here, but we just didn't know for sure what it was going to be.

Awhile back, our teacher friend and New Orleans-transplant Miss Mary Ellen Bartkowski wrote us to engage us in trying to help the friend of a friend who needed some help restoring her home. Miss Mildred asked if she knew of anyone, anywhere, who might be able to help one of her fellow parishoners at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church. Miss Fern is a single woman in her 80's, living alone in her single-shotgun home which she has called home for 35 years. Her home sustained a bunch of wind damage during Katrina 38 months ago, and was hammered again by Gustav in September. Miss Fern isn't a woman of means, and she is proud but in the humblest manner you can imagine. She is also without any family to call on for help. The closest kin she might have is a rumored distant cousin somewhere in Kansas.

We met her on Sunday when Miss Mary Ellen and I went to scout her home to see if there was some way we could help.

The pictures tell a little bit of the story of the current condition of her home, but, like all pictures I have sent to you from New Orleans, they are two-dimensional and don't show the true extent of the damage in any useful manner. Even if you were here in New Orleans, if you drove by her home, you would think everything is alright. Inside, you would find the truth.

In the pictures, the window you see that is blue-tarped blew out during Katrina on August 29th, 2005. The tarp is clearly not the original tarp. They don't survive in this climate for that long. Someone has replaced it for her, at least once. The black mold you see in two pictures is in her bathroom, which was open to the sky due to roof damage, which lets the rain in and feeds the mold. Unrelated to the storms, the frame of her home is so termite-damaged that it's very difficult to find places for nails to hold. As a result, there are holes in the walls, and the windows are falling out.

Miss Fern is occupying this home, and has been since she returned from her evacuation to Shreveport after Katrina. Her fellow congregants at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church have looked after her, led by Miss Mildred, the mother of Miss Mary Ellen's fellow teacher. The Archdiocese of New Orleans has suffered hard times since the storm, and the Archbishop has decided to close parishes to save money. Blessed Sacrament was closed in August. If you want to open a window on the condition of the Catholic Church down here in a seriously-Catholic stronghold, start here:

After Blessed Sacrament was closed, her parishoners were "assigned" to St. Henry's, which was itself subsequently closed two Sundays ago. So, Miss Fern's congregation is scattered to the wind now, and Miss Mildred is worried that they won't be there to help continue to keep the lights on for her, not to mention come together to help her make her home livable again. But there Miss Fern was, living in an open-to-the-elements home. And she isn't going anywhere. There is no place for her but her home as far as she is concerned. After Katrina, her home was tagged "uninhabitable" by the City inspectors. When she returned, she just took the sign down and moved back in.

In surveying her home to see what we might be able to do to help, I noticed her kitchen didn't have a stove or a microwave. She told me she had a hotplate, but it didn't work anymore. Later, I found out that her hotplate quit working a year ago. She has been eating raw vegetables and living on cold food from cans since then.

I am not making this up.

Miss Mary Ellen and I went right out and purchased a hotplate and returned to set it up for her. She said thank you, and we went outside right away so as not to make a big deal of it. We stood outside talking with Miss Mildred about the next steps, and we heard Miss Fern from inside the house say through the screen door, "Mildred: Do you want to come inside and see my new hot plate?" Later in the week, Renee' sent along an electric teapot, after seeing Miss Fern's neatly-organized tea bags next to the single pot she used for cooking and heating water.

On Monday and Tuesday, Ann, Mary Ellen, Reggie, Cobus (Renee's father, who is visiting from South Africa. By the way, his name is pronounced "Kwibbus") and I got started trying to plug up the openings in the exterior of her home, and to try to beat back some of the mold that is growing in her bathroom and her kitchen. During those two days, we were able to patch several holes, and secure one of her windows, which was getting ready to fall out of its frame due to extensive rot around it. Ann attacked the bathroom mold, and Reggie and I cleaned off her roof and one side of her home, which had been overgrown with vines. Shortly after we arrived, we discovered that she did not have any hot water, since her gas water heater had burned out some time ago. We also discovered that her only toilet was not attached to running water due to a tank leak. She flushed it with a bucket of water. Her refrigerator, which was virtually entirely covered on the outside with visible black mold, also had significant mold inside, and was only cool at best, which caused her milk to routinely spoil shortly after she purchased it. We all stopped at that point and began making phone calls to anyone we knew in the City who might be able to provide a fridge and/or a water heater.

The network of people who know each other solely because they came to New Orleans to help is pretty impressive and inspiring. Each of us knew at least one possible resource, and there we were, all on our cell phones, looking for help. On Thursday, Reggie's contact, Woody, who works for the Volunteers of America, called to say he found a nearly-new fridge at the New Orleans Recovery Project warehouse, and they were willing to part with it. On Friday, we picked it up and delivered it to Miss Fern's. It's white, it's cold, and it's hers. They also gave her a new dining table (she didn't have anything) that a church congregation in Pennsylvania had designed and constructed 100 copies of for donation to people in New Orleans who need them. Miss Fern was duly impressed with the fridge, as she commented to me "Glass shelves--I've never seen them before. And "Spillproof"? That's very nice."

Back to the house work. Miss Fern had hired a contractor years ago to do some repairs, but we can't find any. She took out a mortgage to pay for them, and we can find that. Among other things, they installed some cheap cabinets in her kitchen, and all of the upper cabinets have since fallen off the walls. Ann invested some time and love into rebuilding one of them and then properly hanging it from an interior wall, which had some unrotted studs. When she showed it to Miss Fern, and told her she could put her canned goods in it instead of stacking them on the floor, Miss Fern asked her "Will this cabinet stay on the wall?" Later, Ann found she had stacked her cans on a counter top instead. She was used to the workmanship of her contractor. She didn't yet know that Ann knew better.

During the week, we called upon other help. Bri O'Brien came with Todd and Niko, two other Hands On folks, to continue trying to clean up and repair. The frame of the house is so far gone that there are not many places you can actually attach nails or screws. The window problem was more extensive than we had earlier thought. Cobus and I devised a method for holding them in place with a two-by-four at the top and another one at the bottom. With some luck, we were able to find enough non-rotted studs to attach them to, and voila, they were saved from falling out of their openings. Ann designed a method to button-up the two openings that didn't have windows in them any longer. The tarped opening was sheeted and sealed, and the other opening was sealed up so animals and the wind could no longer get in. On Thursday, LiAnne and Bri came to lend their roof-tarping expertise to the bathroom roof, which had been open to the sky for who knows how long. Todd and Niko returned to attack the mold inside. At the end of Thursday, the work that was needed to close any openings in exterior surfaces was completed, and what mold remediation was possible had been completed. Early in the week, Miss Fern told us that many of the electric plugs in the house no longer worked. Eric Caldwell, a volunteer whenever you ask him and a builder when he needs to pay the bills, answered that call on Wednesday. As he trouble-shot the problem by tracing the wiring under the house, he nearly literally put his hand on the problem when he found burned wiring leading into the last plug in the line that worked, followed by burned wire coming out of that plug and heading to the next plug in the line. The floor beam that the wiring contacted was scorched, and the wiring itself had clearly burned down to the copper. Eric and Reggie pulled new wiring, and the problem was solved.

As of now, we are still looking for a gas water heater so we can give her hot water. I was able to fix the toilet, and that now works again. Our team killed what mold we were able to kill, although without gutting the house, getting rid of it isn't possible. We just labored to beat it back for the time being.

When we realized the house is beyond structural repair without totally rebuilding it, we shifted gears to triage repairs, and also to see if we could find an organization that might be able to provide her different housing. Lana Corll grabbed this one by the horns, and spent a good chunk of her week on the phone with various groups to seek help. At the end of the week, Davida Finger of the Loyola Law Katrina Clinic had been able to get a Catholic Charities case worker assigned to the case. We're not sure just where this is going right now, since Miss Fern told Miss Mildred this week that she had decided she was just going to stay put, even after being told her home really couldn't be repaired any more than we had been able to repair it this week. "That's alright", she said. "I've been here 35 years, and I'm alright."

Miss Fern is a clear-eyed, reasonably healthy woman in her 80's. She doesn't seem depressed, nor does she seem crazy. Further, she probably wouldn't be very happy to know I am writing to you about her. But, when you see the condition of her home, when you grasp just how close it actually is to collapsing, when you realize that there's nothing you can do to repair it short of totally rebuilding it, and in the face of all this she is placid and OK with it all, your heart can't help but hurt.

I was really proud to work with the group that threw themselves into this project. And not just showing up to work at the home. Hitting the phones, calling each other at night to keep trying to see what we had found out and what we were still trying to find out, and staying with our work until we found whatever resolution we could was the way the week went. Each person did what they could, and between us all, we accomplished a lot, although every one of us will tell you we didn't even scratch the surface of what this woman really needs to live in dignity. I've been humbled many times down here to see how little so many people in this City have and the conditions their means force them to take for granted, but Miss Fern's home topped it all.

Juxtapose this with post-election Talk Radio, which I often tune into out of a combination of wanting to hear what that side is saying to its listeners and simple morbid curiosity. On Wednesday, I heard one of these people talk in absolute certainty (as they always do) that the "Income Redistribution" our new President will ruin the country with is nothing more than taking from those of us who care enough to work and giving it to those of us who are lazy and unwilling to work. This guy had the ignorance and cruelty to suggest that poor people (every single one of them) are poor because they just don't want to work as hard as those of us with means.

I'll pass that along to Miss Fern.

My love to all,


Saturday, September 20, 2008

Wrapping Up Our 7th Trip

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from Houston,

Ann and I are on our way home from our latest trip to New Orleans. Our last week, as has become our tradition for some reason, was a great one. After working with Reggie out in the Bayou helping with trees, we were recruited to help on a home-rebuilding project by a pal at Rebuilding Together. This organization is working in New Orleans to specifically assist elderly and disabled homeowners who do not have the resources to complete the recovery of their homes. Ann, Reggie and I went off to Miss Della's home on Louisiana Parkway Drive, in the heart of the Broadmoor neighborhood of New Orleans. Broadmoor is a very large neighborhood that organized its citizens early and fought the City back when Mayor Nagin suggested that Broadmoor be razed in its entirety and turned over to greenspace. They said thanks, but no thanks, and the area has been a web of activity ever since. Miss Della is a 70-something wheelchair-bound woman living alone in her FEMA trailer next door, and Rebuilding Together has nearly completed its work restoring her home. The three of us were asked to tile her kitchen floor, so we cleaned the subfloor, installed the Hardibacker underlayment, and then laid about half the tile that day. On Friday, Ann and I went back and were joined by two volunteers, Maggie and Mary. Neither had laid tile floors before, so we showed them what we knew and then helped them finish it. By 1pm, we were completely finished, and the result is a kitchen floor ready for grout. This was a really good gig for Ann, Reggie, and me, and it reminded us of so many projects we've worked on with Hands On. Hands On too is gearing up to do more of these types of projects now that they are an independent affiliate of the Hands On Network. Having both of these great organizations scaring up these projects means we'll be busier than ever on our next trip down there in February. The chance to help someone get back into their home 3 years after the storm isn't nearly as rare as we hoped it would be, but there it is, and we're going to keep coming back as long as we can find this work in this wonderful city we call our Home Away From Home.

My Love to All,


P.S. Update on the Tool Fund: For those of you who gave so generously to the Tool Fund, I promised to keep you up to date on our progress towards finding a matching sponsor. I'm very happy to report that Kaiser Permanente not only agreed to match the $10,000 you gave, they matched it 3-for-1 with a $30,000 gift to Hands On New Orleans. Thanks to all of you, from Kathie and Al Faccinto, who got this whole effort started with a very generous seed donation, to all of you who followed and got us to our $10,000 starting goal, and finally to our pals at Kaiser Permanente, who saw what we do with those tools, did it with us, and backed up their efforts and commitment with such a generous matching donation. Tools and volunteers are the lifeblood of our effort to rebuild this very American city of ours, and I'm very grateful to all of you who have joined this effort. Thanks again.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Road Tripping in the Bayou

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans and Places Beyond,

We've been on an odyssey around the state to cut trees wherever we were sent. Ike hit the Houston/Galveston area directly, but it was such a huge storm that all of the lower parishes of Louisiana were inundated by the tidal surge and the winds that brought it inland. As information seeped in, there were organizations and individuals far-and-wide that collected names of neighbors who needed help. Thousands of trees down on homes, across driveways, in the way of powerline repairs, and so forth. Ann and I took Valerie, a young volunteer who found us via the State's volunteer hotline, and we headed off to Lafayette with our gloves, water, gasoline, and chainsaws. We were dispatched by United Way Acadiana, and worked usually as a team of three at individual homes in the area. Boy, oh boy, is that area Mosquito Country these days. They were plentiful, big, and aggressive. All of that wet ground made for one big mosquito bog across the entire region.

At the end of the week, we were sent to the Houma/Raceland area to do the same tree removal work. Reggie joined us for these days, and we cleared a pretty big list of mostly older folks who didn't have the ability to do this work themselves.

I'll tell you, there's no American poverty like Deep South American poverty. We met some really nice folks out in the rural areas we have visited over the past couple of weeks, and we've been humbled by how little so many of those people have. Every stop along the way, though, people were welcoming, tripping over themselves to make sure we were fed and watered. On our first evening in Lafayette, we worked until dusk cutting trees out of Miss Edna's yard. Miss Edna is an 82-year old widow who had been gathering branches by herself, and I asked her to please let us do it. As the sun went down, we hadn't finished, and I knew she was waiting for us to leave so she could come back out and continue working. I told her that we needed to quit because it isn't very safe to operate a chain saw in the dusk hours, but that we weren't going to leave if she was going to come back out and drag branches herself. She laughed because she knew she'd been busted. We went home, and came back the next morning with a few AmeriCorps members to finish. She smiled at me when we arrived, and told me "I waited. I told you I would. I almost couldn't stand it, you kids working so hard while I didn't. But I waited, Baby."

I love it when women call me Baby.

On a job in Breaux Bridge, we jumped out of the truck and began unloading our saws. The woman we were helping saw Ann and I each grab our saws, and she was taken aback. Her words, exactly: "A lady with a chain saw?" I just smiled. Yep, that's a lady alright, but that lady is Ann. What a laugh we had later. People just don't know until they've worked with Ann.

Back to New Orleans for the rest of our third week here. More later.

My love to all,


Monday, September 8, 2008

Gustav Hits Hard, But Largely Spares New Orleans

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

Gustav hit Baton Rouge pretty hard. We watched it from inside our makeshift bunkhouse. 95 mph winds trimmed the trees there with fury. The power was off in most of the city and outlying areas for a couple of days, after which it came back on in small areas, and slowly at that. Baton Rouge was largely spared by Katrina, so its 100-year old trees hadn't had a recent trimming. As a result, they came down by the thousands in Baton Rouge and all across the lower part of the State, and made a real mess. Add to that the fact that not only did residents of Baton Rouge not evacuate (no one expected the storm to hit them very hard at all), many people from lower parishes, including Orleans, evacuated themselves TO Baton Rouge. This made for a traffic nightmare as one or two gas stations came back to life, and everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) hit the streets to fill up (or try to).

After helping to set up a Search and Rescue database of qualified volunteers for the government folks we were working for, Ann and I went out with Nic and Todd and a chainsaw to remove a tree from a home outside town. On Thursday, Ann and I were sent on a road trip to scout the Houma area, which is located about 50 miles southwest of New Orleans. That area was really hammered, and since New Orleans was largely spared significant damage, Hands On may be setting up some volunteer effort down there. Then, we returned to New Orleans. There's a lot of debris to clear, but the floodwalls all held, and the city was coming back to life pretty quickly. Some power was already back on, and the utility crews worked furiously through the weekend to keep it coming back on. While it's an understatement to say that the people of New Orleans are significantly relieved, it's equally true that they are weary and broke. The evacuation was pretty impressive--1.9 million people participated (said by many in the media to be the largest evacuation in American history), and it went pretty smoothly until the very end, as people tried to return home. Ray Nagin kept New Orleans closed while neighboring parishes reopened, and Nagin had the NOPD stop cars on I-10 as they tried to enter Orleans parish on their way through to Jefferson Parish next door). That caused a shitstorm that blemished what was otherwise a very well planned and extremely well executed evacuation. People from Orleans Parish were told to turn around and wait another day. Kids crying, parents dead tired, out of money, out of gas, out of food, out of water, out of patience. Nagin gave up a couple of hours later, and the repopulation went on without a hitch after that.

Now, with Hurricane Ike on its way into the Gulf, with New Orleans again inside the probability arc, people are worried. Ann and I can't help but wonder if many of them simply aren't going to leave if another evacuation is called for this week. After all, they already spent a bunch of money they didn't have to get out for Gustav, then Gustav fortunately turned out to hit New Orleans with a much smaller punch than expected (hammering nearly everyone else in the lower part of the State). It just seems like human nature might tell them to go ahead and stay. Whether they do or whether they don't, here's hoping Ike turns around and heads off aimlessly to the sea.

We're off to Lafayette with a chain saw crew today, and planning to be there all this week. Assuming Ike doesn't chase us out, we ought to be plenty busy helping those folks dig out.

My love to all,


Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Gustav Day 2

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from Baton Rouge,

Just a quick update on what's going on down here. Ann and I flew to Atlanta on Sunday (as close as we could get) to help with the initial response to Gustav. John Jowers, our pal who formerly worked for Hands On Network in Atlanta, and his pal Sherrie met us at the airport, and we all hit the road at 11:30 pm for the drive to Baton Rouge. Road Trip!

We arrived in Baton Rouge at sun-up Monday morning, and met Kellie Bentz, Hands On New Orleans' Executive Director, at GOHSEP, the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Planning Center here in Baton Rouge. As the storm moved into the Baton Rouge area Monday afternoon, we hunkered down at our makeshift bunkhouse at a local rehab center. On Monday evening, we magically caught up with Lana Corll's pickup truck, which she has so generously loaned us time and time again. This time, it was already in Baton Rouge, having been borrowed by a friend of hers for last weekend's LSU football game. We then went back to GOHSEP to begin the process of vetting potential search and rescue teams who have called to volunteer their services. We'll be on that until they are all deployed.

We're fine up here. A big blow came through here for sure, with lots of trees and signs blown down, and a bunch of related property damage, but other than no electricity anywhere here (except for GOHSEP, which has giant generators running all over campus), Baton Rouge is OK. We're just starting to get detailed reports from parishes in Southern Louisiana, but things look far worse down there. Cajun Country got hit pretty hard. The levees in New Orleans all held up.

More later.

My love to all,


Monday, June 23, 2008

I Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from Olympia,

Our last week of this trip to New Orleans was our best one.

Davida Finger of the Loyola Law School Katrina Clinic hooked Ann and me up with a family in Gentilly who used their insurance money to rebuild the 5-foot-flooded first floor of their home, but ran out of money before they could finish the upstairs. Miss Ray and Mr Harold Bellanger are in their 80's, and live with their daughter and her son and 18 year old nephew, who just had a kidney removed. The Road Home money hasn't trickled down to Miss Ray and Mr Harold yet, so they all have been scraping wallpaper off the upstairs walls by hand, all of which were damaged when the winds tore off part of their roof. Our son Kevan kicked in a very generous chunk of money for materials, and Ann and I got to lead a team of volunteers to finish the wallpaper removal, texture the walls in preparation for paint, and level and repair the sagging subfloor in the upstairs hall. Ann and I spent Monday pulling up and disposing of the carpet and pad in the hallway, and got a look at the subfloor underneath. It had a high peak that ran down the entire center of the hall, and had several very squishy spots at the sides. On Tuesday, Reggie and several other volunteers joined us to get to work. While Ann and I shimmed and strengthened the floor, they all set about to remove the wallpaper in the other rooms. Miss Ray and Mr Harold's daughter Tania and her son Reggie had spent a lot of the previous week removing all of the wallpaper in the hall so it would be done when we got there to repair the floor. We purchased a wallpaper-removing chemical and special scrapers, and took it along with safety gear to them the week before, and they've been at it ever since. We spent all day Tuesday and Wednesday with this work, and went home Wednesday with the floor completely leveled and set with underlayment in preparation for new flooring, and the walls clear of wallpaper and ready to texture. On Wednesday, we were joined by Eric and Steve, two old Hands On volunteers who now live and work full-time in New Orleans. They provided the expertise to skim-coat the walls to make them smooth in preparation for texture. On Thursday, Nic Bonsell came along with us to show us how to use a texture gun and how to "knock down" the texture once it was applied. I asked a new regular volunteer, Bill, to learn the texture gun, since he was planning on spending the entire summer here to work. By 2pm, we were all finished, and the walls are now ready for paint.

On Friday, Ann and I went back to complete little stuff. We reinstalled the door trim we had to remove in the hall, installed transition strips between the hall and the rooms, and generally cleaned up. We also got to give Miss Ray and Mr Harold a $200 Home Depot gift card as a jump-start on their paint and flooring, compliments of our son Kevan. I had the honor of bringing along a gallon of white paint to finally cover up the orange "X" that was painted on the front of their house. I asked Miss Ray and Mr Harold if they would like to help, and they each took their turn covering up the X that was painted by searchers days after the storm. There we were, 1020 days after the X was painted, finally putting it to rest. It took 3 coats of paint, but I wasn't packing up until none of it could be seen on that home.

For the record, here's what the X read, clockwise from the top:

9-5 (Searched on 9/5/05)
- (No hazards located)
0 (No bodies found inside)
AE (Team that searched)

Now the front of their home just says "4532" (their house number). A great way to end our 6th trip down here. Mr Harold told me that they had been contacted by lots of neighbors before they returned, asking if they were coming back. All of those neighbors said that if Miss Ray and Mr Harold weren't returning, neither were they. The Bellanger home is that home on Feliciana Street that serves as the magnet for others who weren't sure they would return. Today, about half of the homes in their vicinity are either occupied or in the process of being repaired. Lots of Xs are still painted on the outsides of homes here in the shadow of the London Avenue Canal. Hopefully, that white spot on the outside of Miss Ray and Mr Harold's home will serve as another reminder to their neighbors that they too can come home again.

Mary Ellen Bartkowski and Reggie Derman have continued, for some reason unexplainable to us, to open their home to us when we visit, and to treat us like family. We are so grateful to them for their generosity and love. It seems so long ago that the three of us worked together on Miss Rose's siding way back in March of 2007, which led to Mary Ellen leaving her Chicago home to teach at a New Orleans public school.

I've found myself nostalgic in many ways during this past trip. Ann and I invited our pals for a last-evening beer at Igor's, our old hangout on St. Charles Avenue, near our beloved old bunkhouse at the First Street United Methodist Church. I looked around the tables that evening and realized that many of the truest friends I've had in my life were there with me. We saved a seat for Chandra, but Boston was too far to come. Even so, I thought of her that evening, in the humidity of another hot day in that wonderful city in the Deep South, enjoying stories and laughs with Ann and our pals, and I felt that familiar sense that I was home.

Catfish is still $39.99 for a 15-pound box at the Chicken Mart (which still doesn't sell chicken), Gold Teeth are still 2 for $150, Six Flags is still closed, the streets are still ruined, but the city looks better now than it did when we visited in February, when it looked better than it did when we visited in November. Each time we visit, we notice some new signs of life. One time it's the St. Charles streetcar, now fully operational along its entire course, another time it's Charles Brown's home in the Lower Ninth, now occupied and FEMA-trailer free.

Last week, it was a visit by Reggie and me to see whatever happened to the New Orleans East Super Gut that he led in March of 2007 (you can read about it in my 3/18/07 entry "Back Home in New Orleans"). We drove out to New Orleans East to see if we could find it and see what, if anything, had been done to it since we gutted it 15 months ago. The first photo shows our gut pile outside the home, and the second shows what we found last week. Both Reggie and I were pretty taken by the transformation.

And still another time it's a homeowner banging away on a once-decrepit, burned shell of a home on Jackson Street, its new framing now nearly complete, and its wrought-iron circular staircase, once hanging by itself in the air and connected to nothing but the ground, now being used by him and his crew as they rebuild his home. The sign on that stairwell has said, for as long as I've been coming here "I AM Coming Home. I WILL Rebuild".

I now believe it.

My love to all.


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Hot Town. Summer in the City.

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

After completing the Sarah T. Reed High School project, I got to work trying to help Hands On get legs under its rebuilding program. They are currently busy becoming an independent Hands On affiliate, after these past 2+ years as a project of Hands On Network. Becoming an independent 501(c)3, finding your own money for operations, building a local board of directors, and so forth is a full-time job in itself, all the while trying to keep hordes of volunteers busy and productive. Hands On has found itself concentrating on corporate projects lately, i.e., working with companies who want to bring money and people to New Orleans to help, usually sandwiched between a convention or meeting that brings them to New Orleans. Ann and I are doing what we can to help them also hang on to the on-going daily construction jobs that we have seen make a difference in the lives of the people we have worked for. We are beginning to partner with a volunteer group in Central City that has a backlog of projects but not enough help. We're doing what we can to cement a good partnership with them ( in order to ensure a regular supply of manageable Katrina-restoration projects for our daily jobs' board. Spending a week or two at many of these homes results in a huge step forward for the families that live in them.

On Memorial Day, I got to go to the New Orleans Zephyr's baseball game with Mary Ellen and her class. About half of our kids got baseballs that day, and we had a really good time.

The next day, Ann arrived. We spent our first day together over at Sarah T. Reed High School performing a minor modification to the picnic tables we built. After that, we spent a couple of days with our pal Miss Peggy Severe, hanging the final curtain rods, pulling a phone line, and, using money provided by Jan Matzelle and Sherry O'Connor, my loving 1st Grade teachers at L.P. Brown Elementary School in Olympia, mixing and pouring lots of concrete to fill a large hole which sat squarely in the center of her now-FEMA-trailerless driveway.

On Saturday, May 31st, we went with Nic and Bri and a group of Credit Suisse folks from New York to paint the exterior of a new family-owned restaurant in Gentilly. It's appropriately named Cousins, and 10 seconds of observation would tell you why. Family members, young and old, filled the place as they prepared a lunch of good old fashioned Creole cooking for us grateful volunteers. Kyle and his family leased this space and have been doing the renovations themselves in preparation for their opening on June 16th. We painted the entire exterior and built several benches and planter boxes to spruce up the outside. As we wrapped up, Kyle pulled us all together, made daiquiris and served beers, and broke down crying as he thanked us for coming together with his family to help them start this business that he hopes will sustain them all. Once in awhile when I tell someone we are helping a business, people ask if that seems OK to do, i.e., helping a for-profit business instead of a needy homeowner. I tell them that when we help a small business get back on its feet, we are helping a needy homeowner. Small businesses are a big part of the lifeblood of this city, and are often the best opportunity for people to restore their economic lives (not to mention the economy of the City). Rebuilding homes is my first love here, but jobs are the most important thing for these people. Doesn't really matter, after all, if we've fixed their home if they can't afford to turn the lights back on. Seeing Kyle up there in front of us, this big gregarious man, unable to hold back his tears for the help we provided underscored all of that for me. As this City continues its long slog back to whatever they will someday call Normalcy, it's becoming easier and easier to take the pace of recovery for granted, to see things getting slowly better. Then a Kyle comes along and reminds us all that every sign of recovery comes with a human face, and every day between now and recovery is one more day since the storm took away everything except their optimism and their resilience. You can find dignity all over among these ruins down here, and today his name was Kyle.

We got to experience a bit of New Orleans nostalgia when Boston Cares sent people down for their fourth trip to help. Ann ran into them for the first time when she was here in November 2006, and they've just kept coming back. It was my first opportunity to meet them, and they were as Ann promised: hard-working and lots of fun. We got to buy them a round at Henry's while we watched the Celtics send the Pistons home. Go Celtics, and thanks to Boston Cares for their determination, commitment, and good humor. Hurry back, and let us know when you are coming.

We finally got to see Davida Finger, our lawyer pal from the Loyola Law Katrina Clinic. She's been very busy lately, having become the sole lawyer in charge of all cases heading for court, after her partner moved back to Lafayette and left her alone. Every parish down here now has a deadline for getting rid of their FEMA trailers, and those deadlines are making life busy for Davida and scary for some residents for whom the FEMA trailer is the only alternative to homelessness. Yes, there are some trailer residents who just need a push to get going, but there are many hardcore poor, disabled, and elderly who just aren't able to rebuild without more time and help. Davida is out there fighting every day for them. Thanks, Counselor.

In between projects, we've been working on the first floor of Lana Corll's home, which took two feet of water when the levees gave way. Lana also works at Loyola Law, and has been a constant source of local color, Southern hospitality, and friendship. Oh, yeah--she also tosses us the keys to her Ford F-150 as soon as we arrive, so we have wheels to get where we need to go. Once we got started on her place, Ann did her usual creative work tiling the new bathroom floor, and Reggie and I insulated and installed drywall in the large living area. Lana hired a local guy and his crew to do a bunch of other work, and it's coming together pretty quickly now. It's never a surprise for me to see Ann take what could have been a pedestrian, vanilla tile job and turn it into her canvas. It was surprising though, and a little scary when I realized I'm actually getting pretty good at drywall. I always thought I'd be able to say I just wasn't very good enough at it, and should find other projects to contribute to. Can't use that excuse anymore.

Since we're on a Loyola University theme here, let me also add that we've become pals with Philip Frohnmayer, a Professor of Music at Loyola. Phil found us one day when I was wearing my Oregon Ducks Basketball T-shirt. Phil is Dave Frohnmayer's brother, who is the President of the University of Oregon. Phil and his wife have been down here many years now, and he's become another one of our New Orleans friends.

As has become their custom, our pals at Batdorf and Bronson Coffee Roasters again made sure that we had their great coffee in our coffee pots down here for our entire stay. I can tell you how much our volunteers appreciate really good coffee in the morning, and I can also tell you how much I appreciate that familiar smell in the morning. Having a bit of home here with us in New Orleans makes me feel like we're all in this together. Which we are.

My love to all,


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

An Oasis Rises in New Orleans East

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

I arrived here on Tuesday, May 6th, having come three weeks earlier than Ann because I had been asked to share leadership of a greenspace beautification project at Sarah T. Reed Senior High School in New Orleans East. We got involved in this project thanks to funding provided by Cable Cares, the charitable foundation associated with the cable TV trade group, who was in town for their convention. As you will see from the pictures, the school is probably 10-15 years old, but there was pretty much no vegetation on the site save for grass and overgrown or dead trees. When you add the post-apocalyptic bleakness that is found throughout New Orleans East, it's pretty difficult to look anywhere and not be constantly reminded of Katrina. While the school itself took no water during the storm, it sustained wind-related damage and a good deal of vandalism after the storm. You can't see any evidence of either as you look at the school today.

New Orleans East was created 40 or 50 years ago from reclaimed swamp land, and was settled quickly by middle-class families escaping the inner city. The majority of the homes out there are brick-frame, and the place, if you can imagine it before the storm, was tidy and well-cared for. The storm trashed the entire region, which is about half as big as New Orleans proper. Today, nearly three years after the storm, much of it is an overgrown wasteland. Six Flags has a large theme park out there, and it sits empty and alone among the dead trees, its sign still saying "Closed for Storm". The area has thousands of trees that died, and that view is the predominant image you see as you drive to Sarah T. Reed. Pockets of homes have been rebuilt and are occupied, and entire neighborhoods, shopping centers, and strip malls sit empty and ruined. None of the infrastructure or buildings out there are very old, and to see so much of it abandoned or hiding amidst dead or overgrown trees and bushes is unsettling and eerie.

But Sarah T. Reed is alive and kicking.

When I arrived, Tim had completed the budget for the project, had specified and ordered all of the plants, trees, and flowers, soil, gravel, and paving stones. He quite nicely diagrammed the areas we were to attack, right down to which plant went where in what quantities. All I had to do was direct the work itself. The plan was for 100 volunteers to do the bulk of the work on Saturday, with another 75 or so to come in for two-three hours on Sunday to wrap it up and present it to the school. Prior to the weekend project, Reggie, several Americorps NCCC members and I invested 5 days of hard labor to prepare the site and set the table for the weekend work. To do these large service projects successfully, a lot of prep work has to be completed in time to work the kinks out of the process and to leave a manageable quantity of work for the one-day-only volunteers. We set the first three rows of paving stones around the perimeters of the raised-beds after working very hard to dig trenches and level footings. 1500 of these 40 lb blocks were moved into place, 1 by 1, and my small team installed 1000 of them, leaving the last two rows for the weekend warriors.

My team leaders for the Saturday full workday were the 10 members of one of our current Americorps NCCC teams. During the week, Mike, Laura, Aurelia, Olivia, and Kerry killed themselves on site to complete the prep work. On Thursday, Laura then led a team that pre-cut about one thousand board-feet of lumber in one day to create the components for 6 picnic tables and 4 garbage can surrounds for the courtyard. I really dropped the ball on cutting day by forgetting to take photos, because it was really something to see. The day started with intense thunderstorms that began around 2 am. The rains came, too, and by sunrise, it was abundantly clear that our day's worth of lumber cutting wasn't going to happen in the yard next to the tool shed. But, that work had to be done that day, and the rains were not predicted to let up until after midnight. Somewhere around 9 am, it occurred to us that the dining hall in the bunkhouse was plenty big enough to accommodate the saw, the workers, and the lumber. A few quick calls to seek permission from the right people, and we were on our way. Laura and Aurelia went right to it, Douglas and Mike jumped in to ferry lumber, and they went to the races. That was the day I realized this NCCC team was special. There was no question about quitting on time. When Kerry's work on a different project was done for the day, she jumped in as well, and they worked until 7:15 that evening, with every piece of lumber cut, sorted, re-checked for quality, and taken back to the yard. The saw was removed, the tarps that caught any loose sawdust (virtually none after another NCCC member who was watching us set up suggested we duct-tape a shop vac hose to the saw's exhaust and run the vac when we were cutting) were pulled down from the walls and picked up off the floor, folded and put away, the entire dining hall was swept, the tables were put back in place, and they left only when the dining hall looked like we had never been in there. We were lucky because dinner was being held in another location that day, so we were able to work until we were finished. It was a sight to behold, and I watched that team come together that day as teammates and leaders.

On Friday, Mike and Olivia spent the day ferrying tools to the school, organizing and counting the plants, and making sure all was ready for Saturday. Once Saturday came, we were ready, and all there at 7:30 to take two hours to get organized, assign the individual project areas to the team leads, and be ready for the arrival of the volunteers. Cable Cares sent about 40 that day, Sarah T. Reed sent about 40 staff and students, and 20 volunteers from Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania who had spent the week working other projects joined us for the day. During opening remarks, I asked all of the volunteers to mix themselves up, to find someone in the crowd they had never met, and to stand there with them. I then filled the work groups with these new friends, and sent 'em off to work. Those 100 volunteers, along with our 11 team leaders, including Mary Ellen Bartkowski, the transplanted teacher I've spoken about in past posts, and the entire NCCC team, including Adam, Risa, Lindsey and Erin, basically finished the entire project in one day. 1500 bedding plants, over 100 bushes and trees, 30 yards of drainage gravel and soil, 500 paving blocks, 6 picnic tables, 4 garbage can surrounds--all finished. As teams completed their areas, they moved to other projects that needed help, and we invented a couple of other projects we didn't think we'd have time to include in the original plan. They knocked them all out. We had a couple of large tree stumps next to one side of the gym that were supposed to have been removed on Friday by a stump grinder, but the rain kept him from that work, so I told Dave, our guy in that area, to just skip it because the grinder was coming Monday, and we'd landscape that area later. Nope, said Dave. He took 'em both out by hand, and we finished that area on Saturday as well. Everything swept clean, all tools recovered and hauled back to the bunkhouse. It was a very good day, to say the least. The volunteers and our leaders really had a lot of fun while they attacked this work with fury.

A team from DIY Network, led by Wynn Pastor, the star of Trading Spaces, flew in on Friday and came to do a tile mosaic (which includes a hand-cut tile Sarah T. Reed logo) on the wall of the courtyard. They were a really fun group that did a very cool job that added a lot of color and character to the courtyard, and their enthusiasm, good humor, and lack of star pretense added to the good vibes of the day. They came back the next day, and took it on themselves to repair a very cool, but very damaged New Orleans-themed tile mosaic that laid neglected in one of the parking islands. They not only repaired it, they moved it to a prominent place on a slope against the school, built and planted another raised bed with surplus blocks and flowers, and finished the whole thing in time for closing remarks.

All that was left for the rest of us on Sunday were tasks that couldn't be accomplished on Saturday. We repainted 300' of red fire lane curb in front of the school (which was done barn-raising style, when I lined up every one of our 75 Sunday Cable Cares volunteers, had them stand at arms-length to each other along the entire length of the curb, and then paint the space in front of them. We did it in about 10 minutes, and people loved the process). Mary Ellen's team stained the picnic tables and garbage can surrounds that spent the afternoon and evening drying out after construction on Saturday, another team swept and washed down the courtyard, and another one still moved the unused soil out of the parking lot. Our team leaders for Sunday (in addition to Mary Ellen, who burned her entire weekend for us) were Hands On staff working on their day off. We knocked all of this work out in two hours. When we left, the transformation was something to see. I went back first thing Monday morning to see the reaction, and it alone made the work worthwhile.

One of the coolest things I've ever seen here in New Orleans happened during this project. As Tim walked me around the grounds to familiarize me with the project right after I arrived, we stopped in the courtyard to look at the three very large planter boxes that were overgrown with weeds. Our plan included weeding all three of them, trimming the trees up, and planting them with flowers and shrubs. Unbeknownst to us, the Special Ed kids and their teachers, whose classrooms are right next to the courtyard, decided on their own to do one of the planters themselves. The teachers spent their own money to buy flowers, and the entire group transformed one of those planters themselves that same day. The next day, when I was looking around campus trying to get my mind around the project, one of the teachers asked me to help her carry a 5 gallon bucket that was full of water out to the courtyard. When I took it out there, I saw their work for the first time. It was done, and they were now out there to water their new area. I went right out and bought a hose and a hose faucet key for them so they wouldn't have to lug water from the cafeteria anymore. On Saturday, we left them more plants and shrubs that they wanted to plant themselves in "their area". I then asked them if they would take the responsibility for watering and caring for all three areas, and that's exactly what they are doing now.

That kind of stuff will keep you coming back for more work down here, let me tell you. It's no secret to y'all how much I love this city and this work, but nothing tops seeing the people you are working to help take your idea and extend it with their own sweat and pride. When that happens, anything is possible.

My love to you all.


Saturday, March 1, 2008

A Little Effort Goes a Long Way

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from Olympia,

After the NBA Service Project week, I had one last gig to see through. When Ann and I first arrived for this trip back on January 14th, Davida Finger of the Loyola Law Katrina Clinic asked if we could scout a project for a couple out in Metairie who needed some work done. Don't tell Davida, but anytime she asks for help, the answer is going to be yes. Ann and I went to the home of Pat and Laura to check it out. The area in Metairie where they live didn't flood, but their home had serious roof damage from the wind, and the water damage from that was enough. Pat and Laura are in their 60's, and very self-reliant people. Pat had done a lot of repairs himself, but he had a couple of jobs he just wasn't up to. Laura is sick, and Pat spends a lot of his time getting her to the doctor appointments she needs to keep. Their home is small, modest, and well-kept. They needed our help to repair a sagging kitchen floor and to replace rotted fascia boards behind the gutters. They had insurance that covered a lot of the damage, but they ran into a Catch-22 with these last two projects. They have a mortgage on the property, so the bank is the actual loss payee for insurance. It's reasonable for a bank to meter-out insurance payments along the way to make sure that the money is actually used to repair the property. What happened to Pat and Laura at this stage of the game was a little extreme, though. There is $2500 of insurance money left to pay out. The bank told Pat and Laura that, in order to get the last of that money released to them, they'd have to first repair the floor and replace the bad fascia boards. Pat told them, well, I would, but I need the money to buy the materials to do the work. The bank said sorry, we need the work done first. The mental picture I have is of some punk kid working in the Collateral Review group at this bank. He doesn't care that Pat and Laura have faithfully made their mortgage payments on time for years, that they have clearly cared for their home with pride, that Pat has done good work repairing the home as he was able, or that Laura is sick. For 2500 lousy dollars, this kid was going to hold these folks over a barrel.

Ann and I went to visit. Their home is small, but OK for two people. However, when we visited, we were also introduced to their daughter and her two sons, who were also living in the home with them at the moment. In the aftermath of the storm, her husband left his family. Pat and Laura took them in, and put them up in the FEMA trailer they had in their front yard. Pat hustled to repair their home as quickly as he could, and when it was habitable, he and Laura moved back in and left their daughter and her sons in the trailer. All they had to share was the FEMA trailer bathroom because their bathroom hadn't yet been repaired. Last Fall, Jefferson Parish said enough is enough, and had their trailer removed, forcing mom and the kids into the home with Pat and Laura. Pat got the bathroom fixed, and that's the state we found them in. Ann and I knew that we could fairly easily do the kitchen floor replacement (the total kitchen space measured about 9 x 9), even assuming there was some structural damage we couldn't yet see under the floor. We pitched Hands On, hoping they could find the $500 or so we needed to do this work. They weren't able to fund it, given their current budget, so Ann and I told Davida that we'd fund it. For that amount of money, we'd be able to repair the entire floor and replace the damaged fascia boards outside. We wouldn't be able to replace their kitchen cabinet, which was falling apart, but we told Pat and Laura that we'd do the rest, and would re-install the original cabinet, which would work OK until they could get their money and replace it themselves.

When it came time to do the work during my last week in New Orleans, I was talking to Lana Corll one evening about the project, and, as I talked, she pulled out her checkbook and bought the kitchen cabinet and countertop. Now we've got a complete project. On Thursday, I went over there and did the demolition by myself. Pat worked alongside me all day, removing all of the debris and taking it to the dump. I completed the demo work in the afternoon, and was then able to see the extent of the damage below the floor. I made a materials list and went home. On Friday, Reggie, Emily (a long-term Hands On Volunteer Leader) and I went over there to put it all back together. After replacing some rotten floor joists and repairing a rotted foundation beam, we laid the subfloor plywood and finished the day by installing the underlayment on top of it. We were ready for linoleum. On Saturday, Reggie and I laid the linoleum. On Monday, Erik and Sean, two long-term Hands On volunteers and now construction partners, came in as volunteers to install Lana's cabinet, cut the countertop for their new sink, install the sink, and complete the job inside. In three days, we did the entire inside job. Another Hands On crew went back after I came home and installed the fascias and painted them.

After we finished, I heard from Davida. Laura had emailed her this:

"Hi Davida,

Just a quick note and some photos to show you how great everything is..and so fast! We have had the kitchen sink/faucet and all the plumbing pieces and the vinyl flooring in our living room for a year and a half with nowhere to put them...just not having to climb over it all is such a joy! We have met so many wonderful people because of this. I am not really good at expressing how I really feel and I'm not used to it but please believe me when I say that this has changed our lives forever and given us hope for the future. As soon as we finish up(walls,painting,etc) and call the mortgage people and get them to come out I will let you know what they say. Thank you so much, Laura"

A year-and-a-half.

I came away from this project seeing New Orleans' recovery in a whole new way. I knew we fixed their kitchen. I knew we had removed the last obstacle to getting the rest of the money from the bank. I just didn't know our little-bitty project gave Pat and Laura some closure and peace of mind, and the opportunity to get up in the morning and resume their Katrina-interrupted lives.

I'm pitching Hands On to create a new focus on these smaller projects, which we do particularly well and have such great impact for such a small financial outlay. I would like to see us do a lot more of this work, serving perhaps as a subcontractor of sorts, moving quickly and nimbly from house to house, doing projects that exist all over this city. It would have been easy to overlook this project. There are thousands of homes in New Orleans that need far-greater help than this. But when you think about how many of these projects we could accomplish, how much we could teach volunteers to do, and what a difference they make for folks trying to move beyond Katrina, it seems really clear to me now that we could make a huge difference for a lot of people. Stay tuned.

Ann and I head back for trip number 6 in May.

My love to you all,


Monday, February 18, 2008

The NBA Comes To Town

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

Following a small hiatus for Mardi Gras, when the City basically shuts down for a week of parades and merriment, it was back to work preparing for another Hands On-coordinated Day of Service project, this time brought to you by NBA Cares and the various sponsors of the All Star Game, which is being held here in New Orleans this year. Ann and I were asked to help Steve get Ms. Gibson's home on Mandeville Street in Gentilly ready for a day of painting and insulating. We spent the first four days of last week with a great team of AmeriCorps/NCCC folks replacing damaged siding, then scraping and caulking the exterior of her home. Inside, we banged up the nail stops around all the wiring and plumbing in advance of insulation. After over a month down here helping, leading, and making friends, Ann returned home on Wednesday, and I stayed on for Friday's service day. We've worked on a number of Service Day-type projects, and the one thing we know about them is that you never know just what will happen. There's always a rock-solid headcount given to us in advance, but it's always a crapshoot as to how many people will actually show up on Work Day. Further, people who volunteer for a half or whole day for these types of projects come with all sorts of skill levels. Many are suits by day, some are VIP's, some are celebrities. You never know just how much actual work you are going to get done until you see the whites of their eyes.

I am very happy to report that we had a very good day at work. After a few opening comments and a fun visit with Bob Lanier (Old Size 21 Shoe himself), we let our team divide itself up into an exterior painting crew and an interior insulating crew. I worked inside, and after showing our folks how to cut and hang insulation, we went to work.

I'm a Pop Culture illiterate, so it was pretty funny meeting the folks we were working with. I was in the back half of the house with my team, which consisted of Temeka and Nikki. Both went quietly and carefully to work, and I started chatting them up with the usual questions--Where are you from? I asked Temeka. Kenner, she told me. Oh, I said, there are a lot of local folks here with us today, and I was surprised because I had assumed there would be lots of folks from other cities, given the NBA had marshalled their players, staff, and sports media to help with this project. So, Temeka, what do you do? She quietly told me "I play for the Los Angeles Sparks". OK, this is going well so far. Sorry, I told her, I don't pay a lot of attention to basketball. Nikki, who works for the WNBA office in New York told me Temeka Johnson was the 2005 WNBA Rookie of the Year. There was lots I apparently didn't know about Temeka, but I did know this: she came to work. She and Nikki banged out an entire room of insulation in the short time they worked on our site. Nice young women, both of them, and hard workers too.

After Temeka and Nikki left, in came our next team, Seth and Bill. Since I'd done so well when it came to knowing everything about Temeka, I kept the same line of questioning. Hey, Seth, what do you do for a living? I'm an actor on an HBO show. Really? Which one? The Wire. Hey, Seth, I've heard of The Wire, but I've never seen it. Sorry about that. Are you a good guy or a bad guy on the show? He just smiled. Turns out even the good guys on The Wire have issues.

I'm batting 1.000, so I turn to Bill. OK, Bill, I give. What do you do?, I ask. I used to play Doogie Howser MD on TV, he says. Get outta town, I say--really? No, he responds. Everyone who had gathered to listen had a good laugh at You Know Whose expense, and then Seth, "Doogie" and I went to work. Like Temeka and Nikki, those two hit it hard for a couple of hours. Bill is actually Taylor Hicks' road manager, and we had a fun chat about life on the road. He doesn't have a home. He's been on the road with Hicks for a year and a half, with very little down time. Riding the wave while they can. Hicks came by at the end of the morning shift, said hi, took a few pictures, then moved on. Even I recognized him, and I've never watched American Idol.

Right around noon, the rains came, and our exterior work came to a halt. We got about half of the house painted before it rained, and we'll finish it ourselves this week. Our interior work didn't suffer, though. They started sending us more and more people to insulate in the afternoon, and by the time we finished, we had teams in every room. We did all of the walls, and 95% of the ceiling. We ran out of ceiling insulation before we were able to finish, but the place looks great.

Like I said earlier, you never can tell how those Service Days are going to turn out. This one was a real winner. A lot of fun, a lot of work accomplished, and another good chance to send the real story of New Orleans home with our volunteers. The NBA and its sponsors picked up all of the cost for this and 9 other projects around the city. We're talking big-ticket stuff, too. Basketball courts and play equipment at schools, paint, insulation, and sheetrock for Ms. Gibson's home and several other homes, etc. And New Orleans gets all of that media exposure, too. Hands On's coordination made it all work.

You can see more pictures of our crews at Click on the NBA Cares picture at the bottom of the home page. If you watched the All Star Game last night, you could also see us if you caught the NBA Cares commercial.

Bill Goslin, an old Hands On pal of ours, spent the week with us for his fourth visit to help. He's a very capable guy who gets started early and finishes late. It was a lot of fun to see and work with him. I snuck into the bunkhouse and spent Thursday and Friday nights there with him, and then saw him off at 4:30 am on Saturday morning. Pick your next dates down here, Bill. We'll be here with you.

On Sunday, I went back to our old home on First and Dryades to attend church with Rev. Eden. It's always a memorable experience to be in that church with those great people and with the Rev in the pulpit. I caught myself choking up during the service as I watched and thought about his congregants. As the Rev talked about thanking God for the people in our lives who didn't believe in us or held us back in some way, I couldn't help but remember that many of these folks are descendants of slaves. Here we were in that 175-year old church, and these people were thanking God for the tough times in their lives as well as the good times because they fervently believe that they are blessed by both. As I watched them all nod their heads in agreement with the Rev, I also saw their ancestors 100 years ago doing exactly the same thing in exactly the same room. Katrina was just another bump in their long road, the road they know leads to their salvation. If you ever need a dose of humility or if you ever think your troubles are unfairly laid upon you, I have a church I'd like you to visit and a Reverend I'd like you to meet.

My love to all.


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Perfect Project With the Perfect Team

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

Ann and I arrived for our fifth trip to our adopted city on Monday, January 14th. To celebrate the memory and the work of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Hands On and other groups in the city organized a number of work projects. Hands On asked Ann and me to lead a project at Frederick Douglass High School in the Bywater neighborhood of the Upper Ninth Ward. The project was to transform an empty, ugly portion of the schoolyard into a 1000 square foot deck that was to be dedicated to those seniors who had successfully completed their test requirements for graduation. The space would become theirs, and serve as a point of pride for them and a tangible symbol for younger students. While we were en route to New Orleans on the 14th, a team of volunteers dug and poured the footings, so when we showed up for work on Tuesday, they were complete and ready for us to begin framing. After completing the design and getting a feel for the layout and the sequence of work, we were unceremoniously rained out on Wednesday when a couple inches of rain turned the yard into a lake, and gave us a better look at the challenge ahead. We used Thursday and Friday as our days to frame the entire substructure in preparation for a mass of one-day volunteers to show up on Saturday and again on Monday to lay down the decking and complete the job. A team of students from Wellesley College picked up hammers for the first time in their young lives and set about, with the help of Reggie and Ally (a new and very capable long-term volunteer) to install 204 joist hangers (Simpson LUS26's for you fastener junkies) on the beams we then hung to the posts we attached to the footings. Very early Saturday morning, after another night of heavy rains, we got the word that our project was canceled for the day, so we moved inside to support a large mural painting project for the school. Again, the yard was completely under water.

It turned out that the Saturday rain-out was meant to be. At the pace we were moving, we most likely would have completed the deck on Saturday, leaving us without much to do on Monday, the other scheduled service day. On Sunday, a large group of Kaiser Permanente employees arrived for a week's work with Hands On. Ann and I were lucky enough to have a team of their folks volunteer to do the deck with us. We went right to work installing the joists, and watched with great interest as this team of folks, many of whom did not know each other before an earlier visit to help in New Orleans, quickly began to work together. Before our morning break, it was very apparent that this was going to be a very productive and fun group to work with. Some of them had no building experience whatsoever, and some had very good skills. Soon, we weren't able to tell the experienced from the unexperienced. Their willingness to work (indeed, their insistence at being super-productive), their individual and collective sense of humor, and their uncanny ability to perform individual tasks that wove together seamlessly into this big job gave this project legs very early on. Nic, Brad, Doc, Teri, Jackie, Joe, Shawn, Big Ed, Sue, Marina, Rod and Russ, together with Ann, me, and Mary Ellen Bartkowski (our newest New Orleanian who moved from Chicago to take a teaching position here after volunteering with her sister over Spring Break 2007) formed one very cool team. Over the course of the day, they set the goal to finish the entire main deck surface, leaving only steps to be completed later in the week. They insisted on working until the sun went down, and we walked away at dusk with just a few rows left to deck. The plan was for Ann and me to spend part of Tuesday screwing around figuring out how and where to put the steps, and then to have our team come back on Wednesday to finish up.

First thing Tuesday morning, Ann and I were back on-site looking at the deck. A few of our team members had been asked to pitch in with mural work still going on inside the school, and, around 9 am, a couple of them filtered out to see what was up with us. Mural painting wasn't getting it done for them, and they asked if they could just finish up the few rows of decking that were left over from yesterday. Since the mural project was going on without them, we said OK. As the morning wore on, a few more folks filtered out, and were tickled to re-join the effort. They finished the decking by themselves while Ann figured out the step plan. Brad asked what else he could do, and Ann and I ruefully informed him that we had two massive concrete piers that used to hold large steel poles that held up an old natural gas line that crossed our deck space that needed to be removed. Brad set about to breaking one of them up with a sledgehammer, Jackie and Teri and others jumped in to haul off the broken concrete, and Jackie and Teri then broke the other pier up themselves. Problem solved. Mission Creep then set in. After seeing the deck area under water, we developed the idea of a couple of smaller decks that we could build next to the large structure, to create a useful space and a good transition from the deck to the sidewalk, covering an area that would otherwise flood during heavy rains. OK, said our teammates--we're on it. So, they dug footings and set about to frame these two smaller decks. Then someone said, hey--what if one of the seniors was confined to a wheelchair? Shouldn't we find some way for them to use the deck? No argument there, so we designed a wheelchair ramp to be built at one end of the deck, with stairs at the other end.

Over the course of the rest of the week, we built the two smaller decks, a set of 16' long stairs which also serve as bleacher-type seating, and the best damn wheelchair ramp you've ever seen. The team simply decided we'd get it all done before they left on Saturday, so work they did. As the final structures came together, part of the team found some surplus gravel left over from another project at the front of the school, and they thought it would look nice if we used it to adorn the foot of the stairs. Before they finished, they had done that, but also created paths from the deck stairs to the stairs leading into the school, and to the sidewalks that abutted the deck space. Straight lines, raked completely smooth, right angles, etc.

Are you getting what I'm saying? This team just would not quit. As the week progressed, it gelled into this absolutely-rock-solid unit, gaining momentum and ownership of a very cool project. On Thursday afternoon, Joe and Doc suggested that we find a way to get the seniors outside on Friday to dedicate the deck. The principal thought that was a good idea, so at 1pm on Friday, the seniors came out and went up there onto that deck (which feels solid enough to land a helicopter on). We exchanged some high-fives, took a few pictures, and Doc spoke for our group when he told them that we didn't just come here to build a deck, we came here to build a deck for them. It was a pretty cool moment for those seniors, and a very proud moment for what had become the best team I've ever worked with.

OK--we had some fun along the way, too. For Healthcare professionals, these folks sure knew how to let their hair down. I admit I was expecting white wine ("just a half-glass for me, please") and alfalfa sprouts on whole wheat. Instead, it was pitchers of beer and fried catfish. I'd better not say anything more. I would happily tag along with them to any party they decided to crash, though.

It was sure hard to say goodbye to our team over the weekend, along with their leader, John Edmiston, and all of the other Kaiser people who came and threw themselves into their work with purpose and joy. We miss you.

A postscript about Kaiser Permanente: Kaiser has no presence in the State of Louisiana, yet sent these folks, professionals all, here at corporate expense simply to help. It's not uncommon at all to have corporations pitch in on volunteer projects that allow them to show the world how great they are, to burnish their image, to create a media campaign. There's nothing wrong with that, but Kaiser just sent these people because they felt that helping was part of their mission. There aren't any Kaiser billboards up in New Orleans showing their people swinging hammers, with a tie-in to selling health insurance. They just came because they could. God Bless 'em for that. And God Bless 'em too for sending along the very best team I've ever worked with on a volunteer project anywhere. I've worked with some really fantastic people--Troy, Itokawa, Brian, the students from the Juilliard School, VCU, the University of Florida, and Appalachian State, but this group from Kaiser was like having every one of those All Stars on the same team at the same time. The week we spent at Douglass together will never be duplicated. And that deck will probably stand long after the school falls down around it. And those seniors will always remember the day in their young lives when they realized that people who don't even know them care about them and did something for them just because they could.

Did I mention how much I love those Kaiser folks?

That's it for now. The weather is very unsettled here. Makes me miss the predictably-fatal heat of August.

My love to all, and Happy Mardi Gras,