Monday, May 5, 2008
another post from herman...
photo by volunteer mike ryan
Today, Friday, was our last day working here in New Orleans. It was a wonderful day in many ways. It was spent with the guys and gals that form the "front lines" of lowernine.org, which I mentioned yesterday. Today we worked directly with some of the long-term volunteers for that group. The oldest of the bunch was 24. They are an inspiration.
Today we were back hanging sheet-rock. This time for Miss Lana W. When we arrived this morning Miss Lana was sitting in a car in front of her home. She was in the hospital having knee surgery when the storm hit. A friend helped her leave during the evacuation of the hospital. They tried to head for Chicago where they had people who could help them, but they got stuck in the traffic that had stopped in the highway just north of Lake Ponchartrain (for the most part, the flooding was south of the lake). Complications with her knee surgery forced them to get her to a hospital in Alabama. She was delighted to meet the people working on her home and I felt I could sense some hope as she saw it beginning to take shape. Her neighborhood is ravaged, but some homes have been completely and beautifully restored on her block. Her home was flooded to a point high on the walls but not submerged: so the demolition crew was able to spare the top couple of feet of wall which is enough to include the original bright boarders around the ceiling: I think she'll like that.
But on to the volunteers: they are a young, upbeat group of souls. Male and female, all with a tool or clipboard within their reach. I didn't learn as much about them individually as I would have liked, but time was short and the noise of power tools loud. There's also the generator chugging along on the side porch. (Miss Lana's home has no electricity yet, either.) But here's a quick snapshot of just two of them. John has quit his job and is taking a hiatus for an extended period to work on rebuilding homes in the 9th Ward. Eventually he is headed for Harvard Divinity School. Ben just graduated from high school last year and has delayed college for a year to work in the 9th Ward. They are both from Boston as I recall.
There were others working with us today and many more young people wandering around the lowernine.org shop and office, headed to various work sites around the neighborhood. Many of these "kids" have been here for months, sleeping on bunk beds, eating at a picnic table next to the small tool shed in the front yard, playing basketball on a lone hoop on a pole at the edge of the street. There is a quiet resolve to get the job done. An exception to the youth is Joe; he wears a shirt that says "not your average Joe" and he is not. He is working as one of the management staff here and works odd jobs 1 day a week to help support his volunteer habit. He has been here several months if I have my facts correct. There is also Matt, another young team leader. Matt has been here since last September when lowernine.org officially began it's rebuilding work.
As I understand it, lowernine.org will train unskilled volunteers. So a person coming here is not only helping to rebuild, but learning a craft at the same time. They appear to be weaving themselves into the fabric of the neighborhood and certainly into the lives of the volunteers.
At one point today an ice-cream truck came down the street. We all dropped our tools and headed for the front yard as one. Standing in the street eating ice cream and telling jokes, with a warm breeze blowing and a strong sense of hope among the ruins provided me with one of those clear moments of pure joy that are all too rare. One of those times when you live only in that moment for what it is and everything else melts away. (OK, not the ice cream; we were eating it too fast for it to melt.) It occurred to me that many of the things that happened here demonstrated a lot of things wrong with our great country, and the seeming neglect since the storm hype has died is appalling. But these people "on the ground" here in the 9th Ward (and other areas that were devastated in this city) demonstrate a hell of a lot of things that are right about this country.
Check out www.lowernine.org and get a sense of the growing trend of collectively rebuilding New Orleans with the most basic denominator of our way of government; the citizens themselves.