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.