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,