Monday, April 22, 2013

Hello In There

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

Ann and I arrived here on April 9th. The next day, we headed into the Lower Ninth Ward to see if we could catch up with Don Edwards at his home on St. Claude St. A few years ago, a Kaiser team helped him repair part of his home. At the end of the week, they realized a lot was left to be finished, and they hoped Hands On or some organization would be there to help see the project through to completion. We'd lost Mr. Edwards' phone number, so we were hoping to just drop in on him and find him at home. We did, and he spent a couple of hours with us showing us his home in its current condition, and telling us how it was going. It's still not finished, and Mr. Edwards has been victimized by burglars several times, losing his tools and whatever valuable materials he had stored inside the lower level of his home. "It's as if someone is watching, and when I leave, they make a call, and someone comes to quickly break in and take what they can", he told us. He is continually working on the weakest defense in his perimeter, constantly trying to stay out in front of whoever is coming next. Ann decided then and there that Mr. Edwards needed the money she'd received before Christmas from the sale of her Katrina Gator artwork. Ann has dedicated 100% of her Katrina Gator sales to directly helping homeowners here in NOLA, and Mr. Edwards fit the bill. So she gave that money to him. The next day we returned with a Ramset nail gun and installed a floor plate in the concrete slab of his lower level, and gave him enough stud lumber to finish a wall that had become the weakest entry point and probably the next target for thieves. He had the tools and the know-how to complete the framing with a friend. Mr. Edwards remembered all of the Kaiser team members who worked on his home in 2009. He'd been keeping a journal with the names and hometowns of everyone who came to help him.

We spent the rest of the week working for our friends the Bellangers in Gentilly. You may recall that we worked on a project our son Kevan funded for that family back in June of 2008 (See "I Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans"). During that project, we became friends with Harold and Baby Ray, their daughter Tania, and her son Reggie. Later, Mr. Bellanger taught me how to barbecue baby back ribs, something I'd been trying unsuccessfully to do for several years. His ribs are always perfect, and he always makes me look good when I make them.

Anyway, we spent a few days repairing the posts that hold up the roof over their front porch. The original work included untreated lumber and some interior trim, none of which withstood the elements very well. We banged it out and finished it off late Friday, then said our goodbyes.

On Saturday, we got to spend a good chunk of the day enjoying the French Quarter Festival, a 20-stage music event that happens throughout the Quarter. It has become an annual affair for Lana and us as we take up our customary seats on the neutral ground at the end of Esplanade Street right next to the old US Mint and the stage set up right next to it. The entire festival is free and includes dozens of local bands. Many locals have told us it reminds them of how the Jazz Fest used to be before it grew so large.

We finished the weekend helping our host Lana Corll prepare and paint her TV room, then headed off to meet our new and old friends from Kaiser Permanente, who were arriving to begin their annual week in New Orleans helping to rebuild. Kaiser is still hooked up with Hands On New Orleans, who has shifted its focus from rebuilding homes to improving parks and gardens. Ann and I and many of our old-hands Kaiser pals are still deeply committed to helping families rebuild and return home, and Kaiser asked Hands On to find a couple of projects that involved individual homeowners.

Ann and I got to work for Mr. John and Miss Bert O'Neal, who own a double shotgun home in the Treme neighborhood. The home didn't take water during the flood due to its location on what Mr. O'Neal told me was the Esplanade Ridge, but was pretty substantially damaged by a fire that destroyed the home immediately next door. Funds were available to the O'Neals as a result, and they've been trying to find a way to get at least one of the two living units completed with what they've got so they can rent it and generate funds from the rental to fix the other unit, which has been gutted. The unit we worked on is probably 80% complete, but The Road Home program, which provided some funds to help rebuild, is insisting that it be complete, including a Certificate of Occupancy, by July 18th or risk a demand for repayment of the funds. Kaiser took this project on, knowing we wouldn't get it finished in the time we had, but wanting to pick the most difficult and challenging tasks remaining, so as to leave easier but no less necessary tasks for groups that will hopefully follow ours.

We elected to install the drywall firewall in the attic, repair a damaged floor in the middle of the home, and tile both bathrooms. Shawn Pascale, one of our earliest Kaiser pals, stepped up to take on the firewall project, easily the most difficult of the three jobs. He and our Kaiser project leaders and pals Alex Mustille and Alan Villatuya attacked the work with customary vigor. The attic was accessible only by a pretty rickety attic ladder. The HVAC ductwork had already been installed, which presented a large obstacle along the entire 60' length of the attic. But even though the sheetrock that originally arrived was not what we had ordered (specific material is required to meet the firecode for a wall separating two living units), and the correct stuff didn't make it until the next morning, Shawn, Alex and Alan and their team quietly attacked the work, piecing it together carefully and completing it just like the pros. A 1-hour firewall is required on a party wall separating two attached living units down here, and this team made sure this task could be checked off the list.

Ann and her folks had two bathroom tub surrounds to subsheet and tile. As always happens when she does tile work, new volunteers become experienced leaders themselves. Those two bathrooms look great now.

I got to work with volunteers who were charged with repairing a weak floor in the center room of the house. This room is the one that includes the bathroom and stairs to the second floor. It is not a living room or other family space. Fortunately, the framing under the floor was sturdy and undamaged, but the floor itself was weak and squishy. We fixed it by installing new subsheeting over the existing floor, gluing and screwing it, then installing finish tongue-and-groove flooring on top of that. Before we began, the room was a bit lower than the contiguous spaces, so the increased height the new floor added actually helped fix that problem at the same time. Led by Maritza, my co-workers worked their butts off from start to finish, including filling every screw hole and crack with wood filler, then sanding them all down, and finally mopping then papering the floor to protect it until the O'Neals stain and seal it. As is our custom, we all signed the underside of the last piece of flooring to be installed. Our PL Alex signed for Dakota, Kelli's late son, and we all added our names, Maritza installed it, and we left a bit of our hearts in the O'Neal house.

Throughout our workdays, we were ably led by Kaiser's Project Leaders, volunteers who had previously served as non-leading volunteers but who were chosen to lead future teams because of their heart, capabilities, and understanding of the meaning of and commitment to our work. These people, each of them, are such a joy to work for and to observe. They get it, and they are committed to making the volunteer experience for new volunteers equally meaningful and productive. Alex, Ashleigh, and Alan, our PLs this go-round, all have special places in our hearts. Their hard work and love for the people we serve make us happy and proud.

On Wednesday afternoon, we enjoyed two very-New Orleans treats. First, Mr. O'Neal made lunch for all of us and brought it to us. We all thoroughly enjoyed his red beans and rice, roasted chicken, and salad. Someone asked him how much of our lunch he cooked and how much Miss Bert cooked. "Miss Bert made the salad," replied Mr. O'Neal. The man can cook.

Next, around 1:30, Tania Bellanger arrived with Baby Ray to deliver Huckabucks to our entire team. Huckabucks are cups with frozen Kool-Aid in them, and are a traditional treat in neighborhoods throughout New Orleans.

Tania and Baby Ray came to share their love with us and to meet the new volunteers. We've known Baby Ray and Tania for several years. We know where they live. We know how much they love their family members, how much they love Ann and me, and how they are the anchor of their Gentilly neighborhood. When they met our new volunteers and handed out the Huckabucks, Baby Ray touched me when she told them, "We just wanted you to know there is a lot of love in these neighborhoods. Not everyone here is a criminal. Most of us are good."

Imagine if what you led with when you met people was, "We're not who you think we are." Because you felt you had to lead with that. Not because everyone you met reduced you to a stereotype, but you'd seen enough TV to know that stereotype gets a lot of play. Because they'd had no actual experience with you. Imagine that.

At the end of Day 3, as we were wrapping up our work for the day, Mr. O'Neal was walking through the house to see our progress. He told me that, with the new floor and the bathroom tiling work, he thought that center room was the "showcase of the whole house". Not the parlor. Not the living room. Not the kitchen. The passage room between those spaces. He was so taken with the newness of the space that he concluded it was the space he was proudest of in their entire home. We were humbled.

On Day 4, as our jobs moved to completion, we extended our mission and picked other tasks that we could complete before our time was up. Bri O'Brien, one of the earliest Hands On members and our long-time friend, came down from her home in New York, where she now lives and works. She is good pals with a number of the old-hand Kaiser volunteers who come year in and year out at their own expense to continue their work. She was my team leader on my very first day of work in New Orleans back in September of 2006. Ann and I dearly love Bri, as she represents the doggedness and commitment to help homeowners that Hands On had in the beginning. Bri and Glenn Young, a Kaiser volunteer, teamed up to caulk the upper floor siding on the back of the house in preparation for paint. They also scraped and primed all of the door and window trim on the back side.

Other team members primed and touched-up interior trim, and generally cleaned up the interior, leaving it in great shape for the next teams we hope will arrive soon.

The next day all of the Kaiser work teams came together to help finish a garden in honor of a late teacher at Success Preparatory Academy in Mid-City. After dinner and our goodbyes that evening, the week officially came to an end. Karaoke on Wednesday night at Kajun's Pub interrupted the rhythm of the work with a bang. Jamie Tam's Dance Party gave all of us a needed break in the middle of our work days.

On Saturday, Ann, Brenton Lee (who helps direct this effort with John Edmiston for Kaiser), Sue Giboney (one of our oldest and dearest Kaiser work buds), and I drove over to Biloxi to see the finished home we all worked on last October, when we spent a wild week with a team that built most of it from scratch. We spent a bit of time with the family who lives in it, and got to catch up with Johnny Gonzales and Julie Kuklinski, who run the Women In Construction program for the Moore Community Center in Biloxi. The program trains underemployed women in the construction trades, and we were honored with our Kaiser team to work alongside them last October in a very intense and rewarding week of balls-to-the-wall effort. You can read about that in my previous entry. It was very pleasing to see the home in its inhabited form. Turns out we built more than a house last Fall.

After a Saturday night celebrating Shawn Pascale's birthday, we woke up Sunday morning and had breakfast with Glenn Young, a Kaiser physician from Hawaii and one of our new pals. He was everywhere on the O'Neal project, doing whatever we needed, including becoming an instant master of the tile snapper for Ann and Teri's teams. A good-hearted guy with mad skills--our kind of Kaiser volunteer.

Then it was over. Two quick weeks. Lana Corll took great care of us, as she always does, while carrying the sorrow of losing Jake, her Labrador retriever of 14 years on Easter Sunday. Jakey was a great friend to all of us, and Lana does not mourn alone.

Lana had other company come to visit while we were there, and Phil and Ellen Frohnmayer, our Loyola University professor and coffee shop pals, graciously loaned us the use of their guest condo for a week. We are grateful to everyone who do so much for us when we come to New Orleans. Everyone we've worked for, and everyone who has helped us along the way have made us feel so much at home in NOLA. We are eternally grateful to y'all.

My Love to All,