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,