Saturday, October 19, 2013

Biloxi Black and Blues

Hello Everyone, and Greetings From Biloxi,

After our two weeks in NOLA, Ann and I set off on Saturday October 12th for a week working in Biloxi, Mississippi with our friends from Kaiser Permanente. Last year, we worked in Biloxi with Kaiser building a home for Jana Gonzales and her family. After that very intense and productive week, Ann and I couldn't wait to see what they had cooked up for us this year.

Our Biloxi work is anchored by the Women in Construction Program, a project of the Moore Community House (, a 90-year old Biloxi institution focused on providing services to less-fortunate families. A few years ago, after providing day care for poor working women, the folks at Moore decided they wanted to do more than look after these women's children while they worked at often-minimum-wage jobs. They started a training program to teach building trades to these women, to help lift them economically. The program has since graduated about 100 students, 70 of whom now have jobs in private construction companies. They recently added a welding program, in response to discussions with ship-building companies down here. This is no do-gooder program. The people who run it have developed relationships with construction and ship-building companies down here, and ask them what skills and attributes help graduates become employees, and then feed that knowledge back into their training regimen. It's working.

Until now, the Women in Construction Program has operated out of make-shift space. Our project this past week was to help build an actual headquarters for them, with designed classroom space and a large, flex-space shop. We were asked to arrive in Biloxi on Saturday, which would allow all of us to spend Sunday seeing the space, talking about the projects we'd be undertaking, forming the sub-teams that would be assigned specific tasks, and allowing the less-experienced volunteers to learn how to safely and properly operate the power-tools we'd be using. The planning was good--we'd hit the road running early on Monday morning. We'd be managed by a commercial contractor, who sent 3 of his people and a site-supervisor to lead, help, cajole, or whatever was needed.

The shop space required 35 custom-built trusses, designed by an architect, and full of angles. The contractor's folks spent a few days before we got there thinking about just how the hell a bunch of volunteers were going to build these. 35 trusses, 5 different truss styles and sizes, all meant to fit together on the shop roof to look like a unified design.

Monday morning, we went to work. A crew worked at a jig set up by the contractor to build the first model of truss, a crew worked at the next station to put finishing struts and gusset plates on each truss after it left the jig, and a third crew drilled holes for and then installed large carriage bolts at key joints on each truss. 22 bolts in each of 25 trusses, and 23 in the other 10. Then each truss was carried by the team to a staging area, where they awaited installation later in the week. I estimate that each truss weighed between 350-400 pounds, and they were over 20 feet long. Those crews eventually settled into a fairly-balanced rhythm, and off they went. I got to work on the bolting crew, and Ann worked on the Stage 2 assembly team.

Other teams went inside to insulate the entire new classroom space, install drywall (12' sheets--yay) and do framing work, including moving a number of previously-installed windows to new locations, and framing a new double-door. Another team went outside and installed siding.

It was fun to watch Monday's progress as the teams jelled. The construction pros began with witheringly-low expectations. Having done these projects before, Ann and I knew they'd be blown away with the energy and productivity of the Kaiser folks. In the meantime, we quietly watched as the Kaiser teams stepped up and everyone took on their roles. As the week progressed, Thomas, Kenny, Willie, Steve, and Dan (the Big Cheese) were all converted. By Wednesday, everyone was on board, and the lines between the pros and the volunteers blurred.

On Thursday, the framing crew had completed the moving of the windows and had framed for the new door. The drywall/insulating crew had completed the insulation and were well along on the drywall hanging. Maritza Castro was the project lead for that team, and she really had them moving. Outside, the crane showed up to hang the 35 trusses. Ann and Nailah ("Doc" to most of us) rigged and guided the trusses as our crane operator lifted them to the teams that installed them. By the end of the day, there they were, 20 feet in the air, all in place. At the end of the day, the crane operator lifted all of the plywood sheeting for the roof into place, ready for the next day's installation crew. On Friday, everyone worked to wrap up as much of our work as possible. Hurricane ties were installed on the rafters, the siding on the main building was completed and painted, the subfloor in the classroom was floated, and a bunch of the roof sheeting was installed.

Then, as always, it was over. Way too soon for most of us. We had one serious accident on Friday morning, when one of our inside workers fell off a ladder and broke her leg in three places in addition to dislocating her shoulder. We always stress safety, and we've been very lucky until now. She had surgery in Biloxi on Saturday morning, and was on our minds all day. This work has its risks. The rest of us (especially those of us old enough to be taking our daily baby aspirin) had our share of bruises, but were otherwise none the worse for wear.

I can't say enough about the women who come out of the Women in Construction program. Ann had the opportunity to work with Simone, and I had the pleasure of working on a team that included CJ, Sharika, and Shauna, women who recently graduated from the program. At the end of a pretty long day on Thursday, CJ and I were talking. She told me that she'd graduated two months earlier, and had then been hired by Women in Construction to join the staff. I wasn't a bit surprised by that. She was experienced, knew her way around the job site, and worked very well with the pros as well as us volunteers. What did surprise me was that, prior to joining the program, she had no construction experience whatsoever. That was a stunner, because I had sized her up as someone who had done this kind of work before. CJ was an example of just how tranformative that program can be. From McDonald's employee (true story) to professional construction worker in less than a year. I think of it as "From $7 to $27". Both she and Sharika were great examples of what is possible when organizations like the Moore Community House and people like Johnny Gonzales and Julie Kuklinski come together with a purpose to lift people and families to new heights. God loves them all. So do we. It made me happy to see such an ambitious and loving objective personified in the faces of those people.

Ed Hume Seeds/Parkway Partners Update

In 2007, our friends here in Olympia, Jeff and Ann Hume, provided a large quantity of sunflower seeds my Ann had asked them for. At the time, sunflowers were being planted throughout New Orleans because they helped leach lead out of the Katrina-soaked soils. Kids would plant them, watch them grow and bloom, all the while the plants were quietly at work cleaning up the polluted ground. Following that, Jeff asked Ann if perhaps New Orleans could use other seeds. At the end of each summer, the Ed Hume Seed Company retrieves their retail racks from merchants all over the region, and recovers a lot of seeds, which will not be resold next year. Jeff offered us all of them. "All of them" turns out to be between 1000-2000 pounds per year. Ever wondered how much one of those seed packets you see in the store weighs? The answer is, not much. That first year, the Hume's shipped 1,541 pounds of seeds to Parkway Partners ( in NOLA, the organization I discovered when I went looking for someone who could do something with the thousands of seed packs the Humes were offering. Parkway Partners is a long-established NOLA organization dedicated to all things green in the city and beyond. After Katrina, there were so many spaces in the city left empty and destroyed that community gardens and wild spaces became a goal. Lots of that work was very grassroots, and came with dedicated neighbors, but often without a lot of resources. UPS shipped those seeds without charge that year, and a network developed to inform and distribute this mother lode of seeds. After Year One, FedEx stepped in and has picked up the tab for the shipping every year since. This has become a very big deal in New Orleans, and the Ed Hume Seed Company, Jeff and Ann Hume, and Federal Express make it possible. Ann and I ran into a number of people this past trip who gush with gratitude and excitement about how much this generosity has meant to them.

My Love to All,


Saturday, October 12, 2013

Long May You Run

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

We spent our two weeks here on the ground working at Miss Mabel's home on Cohn Street, helping Rebuilding Together wrap up her work. We kept busy building deck and porch rails, patching drywall around new windows, casing and trimming those new windows, and getting her home ready for paint, which happens after we leave for Biloxi on October 12th. This project is part of Rebuilding Together New Orleans' annual October Build project, which is funded by corporate sponsors and involves volunteers from those corporations. After the exterior paint and drywall mudding and taping and paint, this lovely 91 year-old will have her home back. She's sharp as a tack, if a bit hard of hearing. It's better that way, considering my construction-site language.

Our Friend Phil

Three days prior to our arrival, our great New Orleans friend Phil Frohnmayer finally lost his battle with a pernicious form of mesothelioma.

Phil was our pal. Our morning coffee buddy. And he fought his cancer with a vengeance. Over the years, we saw him while he was undergoing a round of chemo, and he seemed fine. We saw him in between, and he seemed fine. He always seemed fine because he was a fighter. This man loved his life and his family and his work, and he wanted more of it, as much as he could get. He never bitched, because he was always happy to wake up to a new day.

Phil's fight reminded me in so many ways of the fight so many New Orleanians we've come to know fought after Hurricane Katrina. In the midst of so much loss, they hung in to fight whatever came next, always expecting the best in the face of shitty odds against them. Suffering so much loss from a calamity they didn't cause, they refused to give in, and fought instead. All the while, they expressed gratitude for their blessings. Phil did all of that.

Flash back to early 2008. Ann and I had found a morning coffee shop home at CC's on Magazine Street. It was just a few blocks from Reggie and Mary Ellen's home, which they shared with us when we came to work. CC's felt a lot like our Olympia coffee shop/home at Batdorf & Bronson's, and we had developed a routine of hanging there before work each day.

One Sunday morning, we were engaged by a regular customer who noticed my Oregon Basketball T-shirt. "Hey there! Go Ducks. I'm Phil. My brother works at the University of Oregon."

We introduced ourselves and told Phil that we were Oregonians ourselves. We sat down, had coffee together and chatted. The next day, he was there, and we sat together again. As those coffee shop relationships go, ours grew, and over the next few trips, we became daily regulars.

On our next trip later that Spring, we ran into Phil again. To eliminate any awkwardness that comes from running into someone you are so familiar with but don't quite remember enough about, Ann said, "Hey! I'm Ann Drorbaugh. We saw you last time!"

"Phil Frohnmayer! Good to see you again!", answered Phil.


Phil Frohnmayer, brother of the guy who "worked" at the University of Oregon? David Frohnmayer was President of the University of Oregon. The David Frohnmayer who was the Attorney General of the State of Oregon and almost the Governor. Since Phil didn't say that he "taught" at the University, we figured "worked" at the University meant maybe his un-named brother was a maintenance engineer, or helped in admissions or financial aid.

Phil led the Voice Program at Loyola University in NOLA. To the music world, he was a world-class baritone and recording artist and opera star. To us, he was our buddy. Every morning when we were there, he joined us in the comfortable chairs, and we watched as person after person ran in for their morning coffee, recognized and chatted up Phil, then went on their way.

As our trips came and went, we became close pals with Phil. He always asked when we were going to be back in NOLA, and sure as the sun comes up in the morning, he was always there on our first day back. We hung some lights in his home, and fixed stuff when he or his wife Ellen asked for help. After Hurricane Gustav, we were back in NOLA before Phil and Ellen, and they asked us to check on their home. Stuff like that.

In college, Phil worked in an Oregon lumber mill. There are lots of hazardous substances in lumber mills, including asbestos back in the day. In the mid-2000's, Phil was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a persistent and aggressive form of cancer, caused by exposure to asbestos.

This after a distinguished career as an opera star with his wife Ellen, a recording artist, and a beloved professor of music at several universities, with Loyola University his last stop, where he spent over 30 years teaching and mentoring countless students, including a number of future stars.

After our last trip in April, we heard from him, and he was having some trouble with his latest round of chemo. His cancer was aggressive, and his doctors were especially attentive to his need for whatever cocktail might work. This latest round upset him, and wasn't as easily tolerated. He had a not-so-good summer, and the medicine didn't do what he hoped it would do. He died on Friday, September 27th, in the company of his wife and daughter. There are many of us here in New Orleans who dearly miss our friend. As we work here in NOLA on this trip, we think often of Phil, and how much he loved this city and its people.

As we worked for Miss Mabel, I heard Neil Young sing a song that might have been written for Phil:

Long may you run
Long may you run
Although these changes have come
With your chrome heart shining in the sun
Long may you run.

Rest in peace, Phil Frohnmayer.

My love to all,