Saturday, May 30, 2009

What Goes Around...

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

It's time to take stock of where we've been, what we've done, who we've done it for, and who we've done it with and been inspired by.

In September of 2006, Ann and I made our first trip here to this richly-textured and wounded foreign land. At the time, we naively assumed we'd make that trip, and that trip only.

Over the past nearly 3 years, 10 trips and 10 months here on the ground, I've seen a lot. A lot has changed, albeit glacially when you look at the pace of the actual rebuilding. Nevertheless, over that period of time, even a snail makes progress. It's a lot like watching your kid grow. Each day, nothing is apparently changing. Add a few years, though, and wow--what happened?

On our very first day at work here, Saturday September 9th, 2006, Ann and I awoke for the first time in our bunkhouse at the First Street United Methodist Church on the corner of First and Dryades Streets. We had no idea where we were. "Central City", I heard someone call it. We wandered around the bunkhouse, meeting people and trying to figure out how this all worked. I walked out to our toolshed to see what it looked like. The first person I met there, whom I assumed to be a boss based upon his apparent knowledge of where everything was located and how everything should be organized (We later found out he'd been there two weeks ahead of us) was a foreign fellow (South African, we later learned) named Reggie Derman. In what I came to understand as Reggie's general high-energy and focused style, Reggie immediately got me involved in the gathering of tools for our job that day. When instructed, I got in the van with a bunch of other strangers, and off we rolled into the city. Our work that day was to gut a large home (I couldn't call it a double-shotgun because I didn't know what that was) on Robertson Street, just off Esplanade. I didn't know that "Esplanade" rhymes with "lemonade" here in New Orleans. All I knew was turn here, see a park full of FEMA trailers, turn there, see an entire block of homes with doors open and windows missing, jump on an expressway, see the Superdome and its huge sign "Superdome Reopening September 25th", jump off the expressway, see a huge homeless camp underneath I-10, turn again, pass empty storefronts, a shuttered car rental agency and an empty car dealership, then turn again, once more, and then once more. The van stopped, and we got out. My head was spinning. Red "X"s painted on every home, communicating messages I had no idea how to interpret.

That day I watched and participated in some of the dirtiest work I'd ever done. All the while, I soaked up, and then, like everyone else, radiated the energy that group generated. I heard laughing, loud music, hammers banging, debris crashing from the ceiling to the floor, and wheelbarrows bouncing down the front steps. I wore a Tyvek suit, a hardhat, and a respirator, just like the big kids, and I was doing my best to emulate their work.

That's all it took. At the end of the day, I was hooked.

I'll speed this up. Caliopie. Jamie and Alex before starting their freshman year in college. Jim and Lindsey. After that, Mr. Gibson's siding project. Sushi. Ann went home. Miranda takes her place at the saw. AmeriCorps NCCC. Amanda. Miss Rose's foundation. Troy came. Brian came. Team Nasty is born. .38 Special kicks ass. Sod busting in the Hoffman Triangle. Nic. Steve Gleason blocks the first Atlanta punt in the Saints' first post-Katrina game home in the rebuilt Superdome. Saints score. New Orleans erupts in joy. Chandra. Prez. Steve. Pam. Beers at Igor's. Emma. Melissa. Jim assures Richard we actually landed on the moon. Gunshots at dinner time on Dryades. Troy and I see the Lower Ninth for the first time. Brian goes home to Alabama. Troy moves to Biloxi to work. I head home. Ann meets Lana Corll at the Houston Quilt Show. Ann returns to New Orleans for trip number 2 and roofs a house. I return in March for my trip number 2. Kelsey comes with me. Mr. Carter's gut project and fried chicken. Kelsey and I learn how to eat crawfish. Kelsey trades kisses on the cheek for roses at the St. Joseph's parade in the Quarter. Juilliard arrives, along with VCU, Appalachian State and Florida kids. Jamie Tam's Dance Party. Davida Finger of the Loyola Law Katrina Clinic helps Miss Rose after Lana introduces us. Miss Peggy's rebuild gets going. Liz leads. So does Miss Jessie's. Sean leads. Bunkhouse Goodbye Nights get tearier. Renee' moves from New York. Reggie leads the New Orleans East Super Gut, and inspires us all by telling us that "Good work, hard work--that's important. But what I really want today is for all of you to do your work with love for this family you will never meet. Leave your love inside this home, and this family will use it to wash away their tears." He was 21 years old. We do 4 days of work in 1 and 1/2 days. Noah. Crystal. Ashley. Hands On New Orleans hosts the Hands On Network National Convention. Geneva tells us all to turn our Hands On shirts inside-out while we are drinking Hands On-provided beers at a Hands On-hosted private reception, to ensure that no one will know we are from Hands On. Alan. Ryan. Aaron. Todd. Red. Buck. Cat. Mary Ellen and her sister Lauren arrive to volunteer for a week. We all work at Miss Rose's, along with JJ and others. Eric stops Miss Rose's 5-month old water leak. I try to stop her $2,000 water bill. Mary Ellen (later "Teacher") and Reggie hit it off. Eddie. Chet. Public Enemy Number 2. I come back on July 31. Wyndham Resorts puts us up for the entire month without charge because the bunkhouse is shut down. Sad days leaving the old bunkhouse. The AB in the ME. Siding Miss Rose's home. Kudi. Jordan. Working to finish Miss Jessie's home. Teacher moves to New Orleans. Ann arrives and shows us all how to tile Miss Jessie's floors. Caliopie and Adam become the first Katrina Couple at Hands On when they return to marry. 2nd Katrina anniversary. We miss (by 5 minutes, when the police wave us through) a wonderful chance to tell President Bush how much we "appreciate" all he's done for New Orleans. Anderson Cooper joins us in Violet, LA with the summer bugs. Back for Halloween. Ann sends full-sized candy bars for the kids on Dryades Street, and Reggie, Teacher, Miranda I distribute them on Halloween night. Miss Jessie's FEMA trailer is bid goodbye, and Miss Jessie moves back into her home. The Hume Family and their seed company send 1,542 pounds of vegetable and flower seeds to the people of New Orleans. UPS ships 'em gratis. Ann, Kelsey, and Stephanie arrive, and we all help Miss Jessie hang curtains and assemble furniture. Miss Peggy feeds us Thanksgiving Dinner made in her FEMA trailer. The Tool Fund is born, and Kathie and Big Al anchor it. Ann and I, with Reggie and Teacher helping, lead a project in January to build the Douglass High School deck with our new friends from Kaiser Permanente. Doc. Nic. Teri. Shawn. Joe. Eddie. John. Edmiston Barriers. Our first real Mardi Gras. Small world as we meet Professor Philip Frohnmayer at our regular coffee place. Bill Goslin arrives again, and the NBA sponsors a number of service projects during All Star Week and we insulate a home in Gentilly under the leadership of Steve ("McStevey", if you get my drift, ladies). Davida asks us to see if we can help a family in Metairie finish up their rebuilding. In 3 days, Reggie, Emily and I complete it for Mr. Pat and Miss Laura, and the concept of The $500 Project is born. Sean and Eric install the cabinets and sink, and the Patterson's have their home back. Duke. Lucy. RIP Lucy. Sarah T. Reed High School in New Orleans East gets an external makeover. One year later, it's as beautiful as ever. Cousins' Creole Restaurant gets a paint job. Ruthie. Hanging with Teacher, Lana, and Reggie with Teacher's class at the Zephyrs' baseball game. Darryl and LiAnne banging it out day after day for United Saints, the Rev's rebuilding organization. People come and go, and come again, leaving their imprint on the lives of the people they serve. Amy. Sean. Erik. Liz. Chandra. Allison. Kristin. Bri. Teacher signs on for another year teaching at Audubon Charter School, and the school celebrates with us. Our son Kevan funds our work, and Baby Ray and Mr. Harold Bellanger's home gets a little help. Their home is the magnetic center of Gentilly. Others returned only after they heard Baby Ray and Mr. Harold had come home. Painting out their orange "X" with Baby Ray and Mr. Harold's help makes my Top 10 List of emotional highs. Gustav. John Jowers drives all night to get us to Baton Rouge from Atlanta. A Lady With a Chain Saw?!?! Road tripping in the Bayou with Ann and Reggie to clear trees off cars and homes. Bringing Jake home after another hurricane. Lana's lower level is completed, and Ann tiles her floor as only Ann can. Ann meets Christo Raines and his fellow Jesuit Volunteers who live across the street from Lana. Reggie and James Gandolfini. Miss Della's home gets tiled as Ann and I get introduced to Rebuilding Together. Kaiser puts $30,000 in to triple-match the $10,000 raised for the Tool Fund. Miss Fern. Ann. Miss Monique. Teacher. Reggie. The Humes send another 1,100 pounds of seeds to Parkway Partners for Macon Fry to distribute. FedEx ships 'em gratis. Back again in February. Our Jesuit Volunteers join Ann and me and do the Franklin Street Mini Gut for Miss Debra. Bill Goslin returns. Miss Pearson's home gets a lot of loving attention from the three of us and Reggie. Juilliard returns for a third year. Miss Antoinette K-Doe passes away on Mardi Gras morning. Todd and I button up the places at Miss Debra's where squatters have broken in. Ann, Reggie, Todd, Niko, and Niko's parents do some work and get Miss Cloud's home removed from a court-ordered demolition list. Mr. Ronald. Miss Wanda. Miss Anne. The faces and the names of people who still need help despite doing what they can to rebuild their homes and their lives. Mr. Hammond thanking God for help from Pennsylvania who saw his story in the New York Times and came to help him rebuild ahead of some FEMA functionary showing up to take his trailer. God Bless Davida Finger. Returning to join Rebuilding Together. Miss Janet's home in the Holy Cross. Miss Alice's home in Hollygrove. Reggie quits his job and joins the team for one last old-school workfest before he and Teacher move to Chicago. Tile a floor. Raise a wheelchair deck and ramp. Reframe a wall and fix the siding. The Finest Microwave Hotdog in the 1600 Block of Hollygrove Street. Rod Rian in the Morning on 104.1 FM, The Rock of New Orleans, live from Houston. Lots of water. Batdorf and Bronson Coffee all along the way.

I know paragraphs aren't supposed to go on that long. Thanks for staying with me.

On Friday, May 29th, Reggie and I finished up our work together in New Orleans. I was really happy that day. Reggie was with me on my first day in New Orleans, and I was with him on his last. There was something right about us being there, together, as it began for us and as it ended for us. Hopefully, we'll get a chance to work down there together again, but that Friday was the official end. What he's left and what he's taking away from his experience in New Orleans will live on, both for him and for his City. He is a true Son of the City. Someday, it will be my honor to attend the ceremony when he takes his oath of United States Citizenship. Reg, the Federal Courthouse is on the corner of Camp and Lafayette. We'll be there with you.

Travel safely, Reggie and Teacher. Good luck in everything that comes after this. You are loved, you are remembered, and trust me, you will be missed.

Go Cubs.

My love to all.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

Rebuilding. Together. Again.

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

As many of you know, our last trip here was difficult and problematic in a number of ways. After returning home from that trip, Ann and I vowed to put it behind us and find a way to get back to the work we originally came here to do. I'm happy to report that it seems we've done just that. We joined Rebuilding Together, an organization that is focused on rebuilding Katrina-damaged homes primarily for elderly and disabled people. We've worked a bit with Rebuilding Together in the past, and found them to be focused, organized, and very capable. It's been a very refreshing change to simply show up at the assigned address at 8:30 am and go to work. The tools are already there. The materials we need are already there. The AmeriCorps team is already there. There's a porta-potty outside. There's cold water in a cooler. All we do is walk inside, get our work assignment and go to work. At 4pm, we close it up and head home. In the morning, we get up and do it again. Our kind of gig.

This week's work had us on Royal Street in the Holy Cross section of the Lower Ninth, working to finish one side of a double-shotgun home that belongs to Miss Janet and Miss Glenda, two sisters who have lived in that home for over 40 years. The Holy Cross neighborhood is at the southern tip of the Lower Ninth, up against the river and as far away as you could get from the Industrial Canal breeches that catastrophically destroyed homes closer to the breaks. Although the Holy Cross sits on some of the highest ground in New Orleans, homes there took water to the roofs of their porches.

These two ladies grew up in this home, and lived there with their mother before the storm. Miss Janet told me that the three of them were evacuated to the Superdome, where they witnessed, "Everything you heard about. It was hell. Rapes, murders, deaths from exhaustion, stress, dehydration. It shortened my mama's life, seeing all of that."

Miss Janet never wanted to come back home, afraid of what she'd find inside her childhood home. But her mama couldn't stay away, and one year after the floodwalls failed, they came home. With resources they had at hand, they had one side rebuilt, and the three of them shared it while they tried to figure out how to rebuild the other side, which the sisters would then occupy. Sadly, last fall, their mama died, having been the one who insisted they come home, but never seeing the rebuilding completed.

On Mothers' Day, the sisters decided to go see their mama and leave her flowers. At the last minute, Miss Glenda couldn't do it. It was just too hard, this close to completion, to kneel at her mama's grave and tell her they were almost done, knowing she wouldn't be there when we finally packed up our tools for the last time. Miss Janet made the visit for both of them.

Their home is very well kept, on a very well-kept street. This is a neighborhood in the truest sense. People know each other, look out for each other, and, dare I say, care for each other. This corner of the Lower Ninth got organized immediately after the storm, and there was never a doubt about what they'd do together--they were coming home. End of story.

Royal Street is beginning to look recovered. There is still work going on at a few homes, and there is one derelict home across the street from Miss Janet and Miss Glenda's home, but the paint on all of the others is fresh, and life is beginning to return to normal. Normal, I guess, if you can factor in the loss of your mama after huddling with her in a dark Superdome concourse, protecting her from the dangers and the sights and the smells of death, and then lose her so close to finally finishing the rebuilding of your childhood home.

That's what normal looks like now.

My love to all,



1) Ann and I arrived on Saturday. On Monday, our dog Boo went into the emergency room, where the vets recovered a piece of gravel she had sucked all the way into her lung. On Tuesday, Ann flew home to care for her, to administer her antibiotics to fight back the risk of pneumonia from the procedure, and to keep her quiet and warm. We sure do miss you, Ann.

2) Last Fall, we worked at the home of Miss Fern Kern. You can read her story in my November 9th entry, Falling Through the Cracks. Miss Fern has been away from her home for a couple of months, living in a convalescent center recovering from a fall. In advance of her return, Ann called Bill Goslin, our pal and fellow volunteer, and asked him to check the house out to see if everything was OK. Bill happened to be in New Orleans on his latest trip. Ann prepared him for the shock of seeing the condition of the structure, which is beyond basic repair. As we've come to expect from Bill, he didn't just fire up the water heater and make sure the fridge was cold. He saw the bathroom, and then brought another long-term volunteer over with him, and they spent days rebuilding the bathroom walls, ceiling and floor. Further, they decided that, with more help and some funds, they could do some wall rebuilding and roof repair throughout the house. Bill asked Amy Allen to see what could be done, and Amy got our friends at Kaiser Permanente involved. The Kaiser folks are arriving this weekend for their latest week of work here in New Orleans. They are going to provide time and money to help Miss Fern live in a bit more dignity.

Thanks Ann. Thanks Bill and friends. Thanks Amy. Thanks Kaiser. I love you all.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Something's Happening Here

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

Ann and I arrived on February 19th. Once again we're staying in our friend Lana Corll's guest room and driving her pickup, and our volunteers are drinking the great coffee always provided by our pals at Batdorf & Bronson- thanks Lana and thanks Batdorf & Bronson. We are very grateful.

The Work

A couple of weeks before we arrived, we heard from our fellow volunteer Bill Goslin. He extended a business trip to Texas with a week in New Orleans before heading back to his family in upstate New York. We love working with Bill because he's a) very talented, b) very motivated, and c) is a great guy with a great heart. Our kind of fellow would-be New Orleanian. We spent a week with Bill (and Reggie on his day off) working at a couple of different sites. Bill just doesn't quit. Between the four of us, we repaired Miss Emma Pearson's home, which was full of drywall fractures that occurred because she had virtually completed the rebuilding of her Upper Ninth Ward home when she received a grant to raise the home several feet. The home got raised, and basically all drywall around the windows and doors fractured. With Ann's and Bill's skill mudding and taping, and all of our brawn sanding and painting, we knocked that job out. I went back last week with Reggie to re-hang all of the interior doors and to prepare the rest of the baseboard and trim for installation. Miss Emma and her daughter Miss Donna spent Sunday cooking an entire Sunday-Mom Meal for us, which we enjoyed with our friend and host Lana Corll.

Bill spent his week in the bunkhouse with this year's group of volunteers from the Juilliard School. You'll remember Juilliard from my entries of March 2007, when I had the honor of sharing the bunkhouse with that year's group of very talented and very inspiring students. They have come back each year with a new group, but with an incredible institutional memory of the work and what their involvement means to it. There is something very special about the Juilliard students who choose to join this annual effort in New Orleans. This year's group was no different.

Bill, Ann and I also spent the first half of our first day together in Hands On's new tool warehouse. They moved in on February 1st, but most of the tools save for rakes shovels and brooms were still not organized or available. We needed tools, so we decided to jump in and organize. By noon, we'd found and organized most of the power tools and most of the hand tools. Made our work a lot easier after that because we now knew where everything was.

That Saturday, Ann and I took a group of Jesuit Volunteer Corps members to Franklin Street to do a mini-gut and clean up for Miss Debra. In 5 hours, they had completely cleaned out all debris left behind by the storm, and had gutted damaged ceilings throughout. These volunteers are in New Orleans for a year, assigned to a variety of full-time projects, but they joined us because they wanted to help with the work we were doing. It was old-school Tyvek and respirators, and they did their work very well. Last week, Todd and I went back to secure a few doors that allow access by squatters and thieves.

In between, Ann and I headed to the Lower Ninth Ward to begin a 3-day project requested by Davida Finger of the Loyola Law Katrina Clinic. To get Miss Jeanetta Cloud's home in the Lower Ninth removed from a City-ordered Demolition List, there was a list of improvements that needed to be made to the exterior of the home. Ann and I removed rotten soffit and fascia boards one one side of the house. The next day, Reggie and I cut and primed the new material, and we then installed the new soffit. That Friday, I had a team of 5 people (Todd, Niko, and Emily from Hands On, and Niko's parents, Barb and Jerry, who were in town for a long weekend with their son). Todd and Niko installed the new fascia boards and trim, everyone painted, we repaired two damaged siding areas, and Jerry and I installed roof flashing on two sides of the house. Our work didn't rebuild the home, but we were pleased to hear last week that the court agreed that our repairs were sufficient to move Miss Jeanetta's home off the demolition list for two more months while she tries to move her Road Home application towards closing, after which she will do what she has long desired to do, which is rebuild and move home.

After Ann went home on March 12th, I spent time at the home of Miss Doretha McCray, who owns a double-shotgun on the corner of Gallier and Roman in the Upper Ninth. We weren't able to get much work done for her, but Todd, Reggie and I installed a few light fixtures and made functional a half-assed handrail Miss Doretha's contractors partially installed prior to walking off her job and leaving her high-and-dry. When Ann and I arrived to scout this home a few weeks ago, Miss McCray and her daughter Wanda showed us through the home. They paid the contractor to complete her home, and it is nearly complete except the bathrooms don't operate yet (and the tile work is so bad I can't believe anyone would have so little pride that they could call what they did "work" at all), the kitchen has cabinets but no countertops or sink, the once-beautiful hardwood floors lie un-refinished, with the gouges, scratches, paint and other damage that comes from first being flooded and then being left unprotected from construction workers and the ancillary damage they cause in the normal course of their work. Miss Wanda just stood there, in my arms, and cried. She explained that they have no more money and no idea what to do next.


The first house Hands On asked us to scout on this trip was a large camelback double shotgun that belongs to Miss Anne Pinckney, who is living in her FEMA trailer in the driveway of the home her grandfather built on A.P. Tureaud Street. As has become a very common story these days, she used her life savings to hire a contractor to repair her home, which took a couple of feet of water. The contractor did not gut the house, but used the money she gave him to install a couple of doors and windows, and then paint the first few rooms. That's basically it, and then he was gone. The wiring had not been done, the roof had not been repaired properly, the camelback portion (the rear of the house) was open to the elements, with rotten siding and framing, missing windows and doors, etc. FEMA has given her and her cousin until May 1st to vacate the trailer for good. The materials needed to actually repair the home will probably cost in the $50,000 range, and that assumes the labor is free. She has no more money of her own. Hands On no longer does these types of projects, save for their involvement in trying to match up providers with those in need. The bottom line? She is screwed. The truth is, I can see no circumstance that would result in her getting her home rebuilt. When the FEMA trailer goes away, I have no idea where she will go or what she will do.

3-1/2 years after Katrina, many flooded homes remain in post-storm condition, and time and the weather are getting to them. What might have been rebuildable/repairable structures during our first few trips down here have in many cases simply deteriorated and rotted beyond repair. Homeowners who are still waiting to resolve issues that are keeping them from getting their Road Home money continue to ask for our help. As Ann and I scouted potential projects Hands On had been asked about, in one case all we could do was to tell Miss Mary Wilson and her son (who had gutted her home himself and was attempting to shore up the foundation) the truth: her home is now almost certainly beyond repair. The roof had been tarped, but the tarp has long ago rotted in the sun and the rain, and the roof and roof frame were ruined. Inside, the water and sun had destroyed large chunks of framing. Below the floor, most foundation beams were rotted away by termites and the elements. We concluded that the only route to providing a home for her on that lot was to knock the house down and start over.

Hope has always been a constant here. Residents, despite their financial circumstances, disabilities or other challenges, have always exuded a resilience and faith that things were getting better.

When do you quit calling it Hope and start calling it Denial? Many people in this city are, in my opinion, nearing the end of the line when it comes to the possibility they might actually move back into their homes. We volunteers have ridden that tide of hope and done our work with the confidence that somehow, someway, it was all going to be OK someday. On this trip, we have seen a number of instances where it would be a lie to say that things are going to be OK. That's a hard fact to swallow. If it isn't the elements slowly hammering a structure to death, it's inept and dishonest contractors slapping some paint on it and demanding more money to continue.

If it isn't that, it's a case like that of Mr. Ronald Tonth, whose home sits on the corner of Forstall and Robertson Streets in the Lower Ninth. Mr. Tonth asked two Hands On Americorps members to come look at his place to see if we could help. They asked me to come along. Mr. Tonth has a full-time job, a wife, children, and mother-in-law that he lives with. In his spare time, he's been rebuilding his home himself. When we arrived to look at the home, I was immediately impressed with the quality and quantity of work he had already accomplished. The exterior was basically complete, and well done. When he arrived, we went inside with him to see what needed to be done. A few rooms still need sheetrock, the sheetrock that has been completed needs to have the seams sanded, there is plumbing work to be done, floors to be installed, cabinets, etc. It wasn't a tiny amount of work left, but it was all doable by volunteers with a bit of money and the proper leadership.

Mr. Tonth told us his story: He rebuilt his home on the slab of his flood-damaged home, which like many in the Lower Ninth took water all the way into the attic. His family had left before the storm arrived, but people directly across the street drowned when the floodwall broke. He had nearly completed the rebuilding, including having added a second floor to the home to accommodate his mother-in-law, when squatters caused a fire in the abandoned home immediately behind his home. Much of the work he'd already completed was destroyed by the heat and smoke of the fire that burned a few feet from his home. He hired a lawyer, and after paying the contingent fee, netted about $20,000. The State is paying rental assistance to help his family live nearby. That assistance stops for good in 4 months. This man has spent what he's got and is nearing completion, but is feeling the time pressure and the burden of worrying about whether he'll be finished before he and his family "End up on the street or whatever happens to people when the rent assistance runs out". He's paying the mortgage on his property, and can't afford to do that and pay rent.

Here's what he asked us for (his words): "Anything. Any help at all. If you could come and paint a room. That would help. If you could help install flooring. That would help. If you could sweep a floor at the end of the day. That would help. Anything at all. I'm doing this by myself because that's the only way we are going to get this done. I'm running out of time and I'm worried I'm losing my mind. It's hard to balance all this, but it's all on me and I've got to find a way."

That man has been at this non-stop since the storm, providing for his family, and spending every minute and every cent he has. As for kitchen cabinets, he has just the sink cabinet because, as he so correctly stated, "If I can get a sink hooked up, we have a kitchen for now". When I remarked that his work on the drywall was really good, and that the walls were going to look great after texture and paint, he laughed and said, "I can afford paint, but I can't afford texture". He has cut every corner he can just to find a way to move his family home in time. My heart hurts for this guy, who has done nothing but work hard to provide for his family, to bring them home after a largely man-made calamity took away every material thing they had, and another man-made calamity burned most of his work as he approached completion the first time.

Our Call to Action

There is nothing I can do, and nothing I can ask you to do, to help people like Miss Pinckney, who needs thousands of dollars and has no time. Nor is there anything we can do to help Miss Wilson, who also needs thousands of dollars to first knock down her home of 35 years and build a new one.

But, there is something we can do together for Mr. Tonth and Miss McCray, and for others like them all over this City who only need a few bucks and some donated expertise to finally get them home.

We've asked you for financial help before, and we know the last year hasn't been kind to those of us with investments and savings. But I want to reach out to you again, to ask you to help Ann and me directly help Miss McCray and Mr. Tonth and his family. These two jobs can each be easily completed with a few thousand dollars and some skilled volunteer help. These two families are very close to completion, but might not be able to get the rest of the way without help. These stories are like thousands of stories in this City so long after Katrina. If we all pitch in, we can help some of these folks get over the top and get finished.

You can contribute one of two ways: If you wish your contribution to be tax deductible, you can make your check out to Hands On New Orleans and send it to me so I can direct it to these projects. If you don't care about the tax deductibility of your contribution, you can make the check out to me personally. In the former, I will restrict the donation for materials for those specific projects. It adds a bit of bureaucracy to do it this way, but it works. If you make the check payable to me, you don't get the deduction, but I get incredible flexibility to spend when we need to, with no delays or process. Either way, I promise that your money will be used for materials, and for materials only, for Mr. Tonth, Miss McCray, or for other small projects I don't yet know about but will inevitably discover when Ann and I return for our 10th trip in April. You can choose the project you want to contribute to, if you wish, or you can leave it to me to disburse the money where I think it is best used and most needed. No matter what, I beg you to consider making a contribution, no matter the amount, and send it to me today. Hands On has a number of skilled volunteers scheduled to arrive there over the next few weeks, and the work that needs to be done is urgent. I will personally see that our money is spent for its best and highest purpose, and that we use it to move these jobs to completion as quickly and nimbly as possible.

Thank you for giving this some thought. On behalf of those your contributions will help, I am grateful for anything we can do together to help.

My love to all,


Postscript: On Mardi Gras, Miss Antoinette K-Doe died. Miss Antoinette was the owner and operator of the Mother In Law Lounge, the first actual rebuilding project Hands On took on. Bill was involved in that project, along with Reggie and several other true believers and early Hands On volunteers. Miss Antoinette had one of the biggest hearts in New Orleans, and the lounge was a magnet for musicians and volunteers alike. After rebuilding the lounge, Hands On enjoyed a special status, and anyone with a purple shirt was golden. We have enjoyed many a Thursday night at the lounge when it was closed but available for band rehearsals. Imagine watching a popular band practice in front of you and a dozen of your friends while you enjoyed Miss Antoinette's red beans and rice. We've had many special times with Miss Antoinette. You can read a blurb about her life and influence on us and the City in last week's Time Magazine at,9171,1883364,00.html.

On Saturday morning after Bill arrived, we all donned our purple shirts and headed to Miss Antoinette's funeral. For those of you unfamiliar with New Orleans' funeral traditions, let me just say that Ann and I decided that, wherever we are when we pass on, we wish to be shipped immediately to New Orleans. There's a saying that New Orleans put the "fun" in "funeral". The service itself was joyful and uplifting in a way that, as you sit in attendance, it occurs to you that this is after all how Christian religions teach you to approach death. They've got it right.

Following the service (and you are going to have to forgive me now for being such a novice in the tradition), we all lined up behind the mule-drawn wagon/hearse that carried her body and walked in the Second Line. Second Lines, if I've got this right, are the loosely-assembled folks that fall in behind the formal funeral procession. It's the hangers-on, the neighbors, the folks along the way who, well, just join in and follow what looks like a parade. There's an entire brass band ahead of us just behind Miss Antoinette and we join in, picking up everyone along the way that feels the urge, some with umbrellas, some dancing, some with beers in paper bags, everyone with a sense of belonging. In Miss Antoinette's case, the procession ended at the Mother In Law Lounge, where her pallbearers lifted her casket from the carriage, and hoisted it three times into the air as we wished her home to heaven. And then the dancing continued. Miss Antoinette's father and relatives were Mardi Gras Indians, and Mardi Gras Indians from many tribes joined us in celebratory respect and love for her.