Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Volunteer work in Baton Rouge FEMA trailer parks

This past Saturday October 14 I helped out right here in Baton Rouge with the installation of bulletin boards for the FEMA trailer parks. There are seven parks in total, and we went to three to finish the job the team had already started this month. Jim, Bob, Nancy, and Karen had done the work before and I was happy to be able to pitch in a bit. During their previous work day, they had struggled with the troubled auger, the drilling tool, but this time around the work went much more quickly with an improved auger. They were beyond thrilled as the installations were done in about 3 hours.

There is tight security at these locations and we had to show photo ID and register when entering to do the work. I didn't see that many residents, but I was told that many do stay inside. It was nice to see that a few folks have warmed up their temp housing with plants and a little patio setting outside their trailers. A few people did come by to see what we were doing, and were very friendly and kind.

At the last stop two little boys about 6 years old came by with nothing but curiosity. "What are you doing?" "What's this?...it looks like a laser gun...that could kill somebody!" when asking about the hole drilling tool called an auger. You know, I had the same reactions too when I first saw that thing. It's quite impressive.

What got me the most about them is when they wanted to be in the pictures. One little boy appeared in a group photo not included and in another with Karen. He had the greatest poses and smile. I then let each of them take a picture of each other with my Canon digital. I showed them how to hold it, look through the viewfinder, and shoot. It was so great when they got to peek at the screen to see the image. They were thrilled and wanted to do more but we were on our way out. They each wrapped themselves around my legs and didn't want to let go. I melted with love for their sweet little hearts and said goodbye as I peeled them off of me and got into Jim's vehicle. We couldn't close the van's door with them standing there but got them interested in the mailman's arrival. They boogied over to him with the same enthusiasm. Aren't they so thirsty for the world at that age? Given their situation I could see and feel it even more.

So I'm left again with more lasting impressions and interest to stay involved and expand what I'm doing in the area. I didn't know that there were still many New Orleanians living here in Baton Rouge in need of support.

It is a big concern that the FEMA trailer park residents will be forced to leave once their 18 month stay ends in April 2007. Where will they go? What is happening right now to prepare? From what I understand, their biggest challenge is poverty related and that just doesn't get with wished away. Katrina related consequences only serve to magnify their problems.

I'm definitely going to return there with the photos for the boys. Who knows, maybe they'd like to take some more. There was a big photo project for the children in the larger FEMA trailer park, Renaissance Village, and maybe something similar can get going in the smaller ones.

I'd like to tutor and get involved in educational outreach for the displaced children. Bob, one of the volunteers, gave me the name of someone working in Renaissance Village who can give me info. Rosie O' Donnell has set up an educational enrichment center there through her For All Kids - Project Katrina Initiative, and it will be opening soon.

It ends up that this contact person works with the Children's Coalition of Baton Rouge, and I will be attending an Action Summit they are holding tomorrow. They are involved in the improvement of children's welfare here in Baton Rouge, and also have a targeted Katrina force too.

As I learn more about everything, I will keep you posted.

UU Weekend Warriors take on New Orleans

A small article about our church's NOLA volunteer worked appeared online at the end August. It was fun and humbling to be interviewed on the phone, and it was a good way to spread the word that a little bit of help goes a long way for New Orleanians. Check it out at http://www.uuworld.org/news/articles/uuweekendwarriorstakeonneworleans6084.shtml

Baton Rouge UU group makes monthly visits to help clean up.
By Donald E. Skinner
The Weekend Warriors can’t stop helping.

When the call went out for volunteers last fall after hurricanes Katrina and Rita roared through New Orleans, a group of men and women from the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge were among the first to step forward.

The group became known as the Weekend Warriors. Since November they have made nine trips to New Orleans, or about one a month. The group helps individual members of the three New Orleans-area Unitarian Universalist congregations put their lives back together. The warriors have cleared vegetation and downed trees from yards, removed water heaters and other debris, made repairs to floors and windows, moved furniture, erected fencing, help gut houses, hauled building materials, and washed sidewalks and sides of buildings.

The leader of the warriors is Michael Hebert, an air pollution consultant. Asked why he volunteered for the group, he quoted the Sufi poet, Rumi: “Love is the religion and the universe is the book.” He added, “It’s all about compassion. Everyone on earth deserves a fair shake.”

Shannon Cavell, the Baton Rouge congregation’s president and a warriors member, made the first trip to New Orleans in November, helping salvage belongings from the flooded Community Church UU. The next month the warriors made another trip—and then another.

On each trip the warriors work on three to four projects. They’ve helped about 15 families in total. “These folks are still struggling every day just to get by and we figure it’s the least we can do to help wherever we can,” said Hebert. “We’re not trying to help all of humanity, just one person or family at a time.”

The warriors are a group of about 24; five to ten members make each trip to New Orleans. There are homemakers, lawyers, computer technicians, a veterinarian, agricultural and environmental consultants, an engineer, a physician, a journalist, a social worker, and a working and a retired nurse.

“The whole reason why we can do this is our location,” said Hebert. “It takes us a little more than an hour to get into the city and then we can put in an 8- to 10-hour workday and come home again.” For many months volunteers from farther away found it difficult to volunteer because there was no place for them to stay in New Orleans. “We’re self-contained,” he said, “so we didn’t have that problem.”

And there’s more to these trips than simply physical labor. “The other way we help is simply by listening to people,” he explained. “We might be cutting down a tree for someone, but while we’re doing that we’re talking to them and listening to their frustrations and their plans. We help them celebrate their small victories and commiserate about their losses.” Most of the time, he said, the homeowners are out there working alongside the warriors.

Hebert doesn’t see an end to the warriors’ trips. He said the group helped one Ninth Ward member, Augusta Butler, finish the gutting of her house, and is teaming with a program run by the Episcopal Church to gut another house for a First Unitarian Church of New Orleans member, Rita Hubbard. He is also lining up opportunities for members of his congregation to work with other groups in New Orleans.

Conditions are still pretty primitive in some areas of the city, Hebert said, choking up as he described what the city looked like back in November and December and how little some areas have changed. “People who live there,” he said, “have to face the insanity every day of piles of trash, no city services, fighting with insurance companies, whether there will be another hurricane, and if so, will the levees hold.”

Irene Kato has been on four warrior trips to New Orleans. “I just wanted to help people get their lives back in order,” she said. “At first I didn’t know what to expect. I thought I had to be Wonder Woman, but I found that just doing a small task means so much to people. I spent a day pulling tall weeds out of a woman’s yard and she was so grateful. She said that just the fact that we were there helping was inspiration enough for her to do more on her own.”

“Another time,” she said, “I hung blinds in a man’s house. It was just a small thing, but he was so excited. He said, ‘Now I can dance in my living room again.’”

Rita Hubbard, a member of Community Church UU in New Orleans, lost most of the contents of her house to flooding. The warriors arranged for the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge’s senior youth group to come help her for a day. The warriors themselves will follow up with a workday on August 26 to start gutting her house.

“People from the church have just been a godsend,” said Hubbard. “They helped us clean out the house, including finding some valuables that we’d not had time to get to.” Hubbard has been living in Houston since Katrina, but still supports Community Church. “I hope to move back but I don’t know yet if that will be possible,” she said. “But people like the Weekend Warriors help make that more of a reality.”