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,