Saturday, December 15, 2007

New Hires

Yeah!!! Though the news is late in coming, we were finally able to hire on some new folks to help run our programs.

In April 2007, we were awarded an Environmental Justice grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). With this grant, we will educate residents of the Gulf Coast on the health and structural issues that mold can create and demonstrate low-cost, effective ways to fight mold. After some fits and starts, we were able to hire Erica Winslow to be our Mold Educator. This happened officially in November. Congrats and welcome aboard!

Our building program is on solid footing and needed additional supervisors to help Eddie and Sheli meet their home construction goals in 2008. With money from coporate sponsorships, we were able to bring on one long-time construction guy - Brian "Deubs" Deubert - and an almost as long construction guy - John Wildeman. Both have learned their trade and grown under Eddie's tutelage and will be great team leads in the field. Welcome aboard!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Water Line

Yesterday morning my colleagues and I painted the exterior of a house belonging to a woman whose home was flooded in August 2005 during hurricane Katrina.

My fellow co-workers also framed walls for a new house and painted murals in a daycare center that will finally re-open next week.

Because so much work remains to be done along the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans, we held our staff retreat here and decided to donate our time as part of the agenda.

On the first night local residents came to our group dinner and told us their stories.

I invited a friend from the area to read a blog post she wrote about how she lost her home.

My colleagues were moved by the profound way that her story blended the ordinary details of life with the devastation of the storm.

She was charming, funny, eloquent and poignant.

The other community guest was a man named Grady, the uncle of one of my colleagues.

The first thing Grady told us was that he usually avoids talking about his experience during hurricane Katrina.

Before the hurricane Grady lived with his wife and three children in a nice house near the beach in coastal, Mississippi.

He was the CEO of a successful company that he founded.

He drove a nice car.

Grady’s elderly father, reliant upon an oxygen tank to breathe, lived in the house next door.

During the summer of 2005, Grady’s family evacuated their home five times for hurricanes and, on one of those occasions, it didn’t even rain.

On the morning of August 29th Grady didn't think it looked like Katrina would hit the Gulf Coast.

He and his family decided not to evacuate and stayed at home.

At noon that day, the situation looked increasingly dire so they decided to drive two miles inland to Grady’s office.

They brought their boat and left it set so that if the water rose the boat would rise with it.

The water rose.

Grady told us how fast the water came into his office building and kept coming.

He had one life jacket.

His six, eight and ten year old children worried.

When the water started to become dangerously high, Grady put his six year old in the life jacket and tied a rope around him.

Grady, his wife, his father and the other two children held on to the rope and prayed.

The family decided that if the water rose too high they would break a window up near the ceiling, escape and swim around the building to the boat.

I’m not sure where Grady’s father’s oxygen tank fit into the plan. Perhaps it didn’t.

Meanwhile, the water kept rising.

The children began to cry.

The eye of the storm passed over the building.

The water kept rising and rising… and finally…finally…it stopped.

When the water receded they had to walk the two miles back to their neighborhood and make their way over six blocks of debris eight feet high to find the spot where their house had been.

It took four days for Grady to find what remained of his house four blocks away.

With all communication cut off, Grady’s family had no way to understand the magnitude of the storm's impact. In other parts of the country their extended family had no way to know if they were alive.

As Grady talked, I couldn’t help thinking about how frightened he must have been during the storm. I thought about how responsible he must have felt – responsible for protecting his family, for making the choice to stay, for needing to save their lives.

I thought about the nightmares that jerk me awake in a cold sweat – the ones where something terrible has happened to my children. The ones where I can't save them.

I thought about Grady living through this literal nightmare.

It took my breath away.

After his talk, Grady told me that the thing about his experience that hurt him the most was that his children were robbed of the secure knowledge that he was Superman. They saw his raw fear and it stripped them of their innocence. More than anything else, this is what he wishes he could erase.

The physical destruction caused by the storm is no longer represented by piles of debris or the twisted remains of buildings but rather by endless stretches of emptiness marked only by driveways and stairs leading to the ghosts of vanished front doors.

I wondered about the destruction that I couldn’t see.

Grady’s family evacuated to his wife’s family farm in Georgia and they still live there.

Though Grady commutes back and forth between the farm and the gulf to work, his family will not return.

They don’t even want to visit. They are not coming back here.

What is it like to live with the memory of their experience?

Megan told me a story about a woman who worked as a nurse in a mental health facility before the storm.

Because the patients couldn’t be evacuated, staff had to stay and work or lose their jobs.

The woman stayed and because she stayed, so did her husband and son.

After the storm, when she was able to finally make it back to her house, she found her husband and son had drowned in the family living room.

She was found cradling the body of her son on her front porch.

She had been sitting there holding him for days because there was no one to come and collect the dead.

“So is everything rebuilt now? Is everything back to normal?”

Megan told me how much she hates this question.

It’s not rebuilt. It’s not back to normal.

What was lost will never be returned.

Grady told us about the second storm surge, the wave of volunteers who came from all over the country and arrived well before the government with water, ice and bread.

The volunteers brought simple things like toothpaste and soap. They brought baby formula and diapers.

“They restored my faith in humanity,” he said.

I wish I had been one of those volunteers but on the day of hurricane Katrina I watched CNN, I gave birth to my daughter.

This is the first time I have had the opportunity to come to the Gulf to volunteer.

Yesterday I painted the house of an elderly woman who has lived in a nursing home for nearly two and a half years.

In February her house, entirely renovated by volunteers, will be finished and she will finally be able to come home.

Both Megan and Grady talked about their faith that the Gulf Coast would be reborn into something greater than it was before.

Despite their experiences, both of them believe that the utter devastation was, itself, a catalyst for the Gulf Coast’s renewal.

They described people and communities coming together to collaborate in ways that would never have been possible before the storm.

Their enthusiasm and hope were contagious.

I found myself swept up in it, and felt part of something larger than myself.

In so many ways, I am so grateful.

Jessica K., Atlanta, Georiga

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Mr T. Goes to Maine

For those of you that have come to know and love Mr. Thornton, I'm hoping you'll be happy to read this posting.

Pat Thornton has spent the past couple of days with me inbetween Mississippi and Maine, telling me repeatedly that this week has been the greatest week of his life. Pat spent the weekend sharing his incredible story with the folks from Food Network for a show Dinner: Impossible. For those of you that have already heard his story, you know what I'm talking about. If you don't know, you better ask somebody.

Then on Tuesday, I was given the honor of taking Pat with me to Kennebunkport, ME, for an event with former President George H.W. Bush, that is hoping to gain the support of a group of corporations, foundations, and philanthropists for our newly merged organization, Points of Light & Hands On Network. Pat was given the simple task of sharing his story with a few big shots, and laying on his incomparable southern charm in this beautiful area of the country.

The first day for Pat was a little overwhelming. This was the first time the guy had been on a plane since returning from Vietnam, so it was a little different for him, but he was definitely excited. Seeing him grinning from ear to ear while leaning over his cabin window is an absolute joy. When we arrived in New Hampshire it quickly became apparent Pat was a little out of his element. While stopping at an ATM machine for the ridiculous number of toll roads in New Hampshire, Pat thought it was ok to light up one of his cigars inside a gas station and was quickly reprimanded. "You can't do that anywhere in this state!" said the grumpy clerk. I felt like telling her to piss off, but chose to concentrate on ensuring Pat had a good time. Naturally, he was a little upset, but after I put on a Ray Charles CD in the car, he quickly perked up again and began to feel at home. Listening to him singing along, telling me stories of the days he used to be in the band the Rockin' Rebels, and how as a young boy an old, blind black guy with no legs taught him how to play a mean guitar, it makes you realize how important the simple things are. "Music can be therapuetic," says Pat. I never really understood that until now.

Pat spent Wednesday morning exploring, resting, enjoying Maine, and thinking a lot about Sandy and how happy she would be to see all of this. Later in the day, Pat shared his story with President Bush at their home at Walker's Point, also known as "The Compound" to the locals. He told me that the whole time he was thinking to himself "what you think you're doing here boy?", but that those feelings quickly wore off after President Bush spoke to him and "made me feel right at home." He got to take some pictures with George and Babs and explore the home that has been in the Bush family for generations.
At dinner later that evening, Mr. T shared his story in detail with everybody in attendance. He basically everyone fall in love with him, and understandably there was not a dry eye in the room. He described his struggles through Hurricane Camille, and later with the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. He talked about how he and Sandy tried to do all they could themselves, but what they really needed was a little help to get them over the hump. Enter Hands On volunteers like Luc Lamarche and Brian "Deubs", who invested countless hours to get them back into their home. He talked about the joy that still resonated through that home today because of the volunteers who had worked on his home. He spoke of the happiness of his wife Sandy, when she finally got to see what her restored home looked like. "Hands On volunteers made her dreams come true, and how many people get to see their dreams come true in life?" he said.

Later that evening, Pat and I took a moment to reflect on the day's events over a bottle of Heinekken and he told me how proud he thought Sandy would be. "I talked to her earlier - she told me to take a bath before going to meet the President!" he joked. "But I know she would be proud of me, and I know she is here with us now," he said. It was a happy time for Pat. He helped make another of Sandy's dreams come true that day by helping to thank the people who help us continue this important work.

For me, Pat and Sandy represented a profound sense of hope. A restored belief in the power of love. Whenever you see two high school sweethearts that are still flirting with one another, gazing at each other like teenagers, and truly in love with one another after 43 years of marriage its a special thing. When you see that a love like that can transcend time and space, that the love two people shared for a lifetime can still be obvious to everyone, even after Sandy is gone, it will make you realize what's important, and what is simply not worth worrying about.

Quite simply it is an honor call Pat Thornton my friend.

Check out some pictures from our trip on the HOGC Flickr site...

Monday, September 10, 2007

Ethel Moves In

This past weekend, Ms. Ethel Curry finally moved into her house. Just over two years have passed since Katrina Ethel's old home away. Nine months have passed since Hands On began working. Nothing would have been possible without Guiding Light's generous support.

From the framing stages of the house where we had to replace practically every piece of wood to the last days of touching up paint on patches of dry wall, the crews of dedicated volunteers cycled through Ethel's. Brian, Quincy, John Wildeman, Robyn, Marj, and Brannon are among the many who lent their particular skills to turning a gutted skeleton of a building into a warm, inviting home.

The day of the move in was a typically warm day in Southern Mississippi, sun shining and dark clouds amassing on the horizon. No worries, though, inside the house it is cozy and spacious, fully furnished. Waiting for friends and family to fill it up.

Guiding Light cast members Beth Chamberlin and Rob Bogue were on hand to walk Ms. Ethel through her house while Jan Conklin and Janet filmed it. Beth and Rob both remembered that Ms. Ethel said she used to always have a pot of coffee on for folks who dropped in for a visit. When Ms. Ethel walked through her kitchen, they pointed out the coffee maker, just waiting for Ms. Ethel to turn it on. Personally, I think Rob just wanted some coffee ;)

We celebrate when each of the residents we helped move into their homes. Sometimes the celebrations are big, sometimes small. Regardless of how many folks we have come celebrate, it's always emotional. I think seeing Ms. Ethel move in was particularly special for us because we've been at her house for so long, making sure everything was perfect for her and the boys.
Eddie, Sheli, and Brian were just as overcome with emotion as Ms. Ethel. Anyone who has come down and worked on one of our building projects knows that there's a deep bond that forms between the crews and the home owners who live in their FEMA trailers nearby. It's not just anyone we're putting into their home, this was Ms. Ethel.
I was happy to be there to share the moment. Being in an administrative role means I don't get out to see all the great work our volunteers and AmeriCorps members do each day. These special occassions serve to allow me to connect with them, their work, and the residents of Biloxi.
Ms. Ethel, I hope that's a great coffee maker because I think you're going to have a steady stream of Hands On folks stopping by for that ever-full pot-o'-coffee.
:: Chris ::

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

2nd Anniversary

29 August 2007 marked the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's landfall, which washed away the lives of residents all along the Gulf Coast. From Waveland to Pascagoula, sunrise and sunset services remembered the past and departed while focusing our attention on the future and hope.

I went to the sunrise service in Waveland. On the horizon, clouds hung lazily in the air, a textured canvas upon which the sun's early rays could paint softly shifting hues of purples, reds, oranges, and yellows. As the sun gently shed it's light on those gathered, representatives from the Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, and Jewish communities led us through prayers and reflections.

The Total Experience Gospel Choir, a group from Seattle, sang. Pastor Patrinell “Pat” Wright's voice was beautiful - crystal clear, strong, full of soul, moving. The harmony of the choir, coupled with her solo, were perfect accompaniment to the service and the perfect way to begin a day of remembrance. Rather than create our own memorial services, we as Hands On Gulf Coast, decided to participate in the memorials occuring along the coast. Instead, we slowed the pace of work to allow our folks to reflect on the impact of the storm, progress since then, and work left to do.
~ xx ~ xx ~ xx ~
As I drove from the service in Waveland, I saw the still empty lots, overgrown with weeds whose rapid growth, fueled by semi-tropical sun and abundant rain, gave the appearance of encroaching jungle . The sight of their emptiness and their inactivity starkly contrasted to the glitz of Biloxi's casinos and the bustle of Gulfport's commerce along Highway 49.

Though I drive often through the devastated neighborhoods of East Biloxi, I am still amazed at the difference in progress between Biloxi and Waveland. Whereas Biloxi shows the beehive-like activity of paid construction workers and volunteer crews building and rebuilding, Waveland shows an eerie, serene quiet of aquiescense to forces beyond the average citizen's control.

Waveland is not as blessed with gaming revenue or major employers, so as a poorer community it loses in the recovery efforts. They are easily neglected and have the fewest resources available to start recovery, much less keep it moving. I think that's why it's important for folks like us to continue volunteering. Our presence on the Gulf Coast shows residents in the neighborhoods with the greatest needs that someone still cares and someone will still help.

Our presence gives residents hope to carry on the slow, laborious process of rebuilding. Though we, as volunteers, may not be able to solve every problem, we as citizens can keep policy makers and government officials focused on the problems of neglect and poor recovery to ensure that the Gulf is rebuilt.

Integral to the rebuilding efforts are the countless volunteers who gave freely of their time, money, and compassion to lend a hand. Thank you to all who have served on the Gulf Coast and thank you to all who will serve on the Gulf Coast.

Saturday, July 21, 2007


Some of you might think BB is shorthand for blackberry, but luckily, that's not what I'm writing about now. No, instead I'm talking about basketball at John Henry Beck Park in East Biloxi.

I don't play it and I don't watch it or follow it. But I certainly support what's going on in the park. A couple of our folks and former folks decided that it would be a great idea to start a league that uses the park. Kids from the surrounding neighborhood could come out to learn about the game and play. While getting the kids out to play ball, it also shows the courts are being used and that they shouldn't be torn down.

So with that as a back drop, I've dropped by twice now to see Dan and Eddie Sherman, Becca, Mike Grote, Caitlin Sherman, John Wildeman (also related to the Shermans) and others all leading kids in drills and scrimages. There are kids of all ages out there on the court. I think the youngest are 9 and the oldest are 17 (maybe it's 16). Either way, it's all about the kids on the court having a great Saturday morning.

Dan runs the teen program at the Boys and Girls club, so he's got some connections with the kids. Two weeks ago when I was talking with him about the practices, he said a lot of the kids don't know the basics of the game. They shoot, they dribble, and they're athletic, but they don't really understand the structure and the basics. When Dan learned to play, he learned through drills and scrimages. I figured the kids would just want to play, but no, they're really interested in beefing up their skills.

Eddie is just a competitive guy who can't not play. Of course he runs drills, but he's right there in the thick of things playing with big and little kids alike. It's pretty cool to see them all - Hands On folks and residents - out on the court.

I think it again illustrates the powerful impact we have on the place that we work. Here we are on the weekend in a rough section of town, playing ball with the kids. They have some place safe and structured to go on Saturday morning that's fun, educational, and interesting. It also illustrates what happens when folks have an idea and put it into action. Dan and Eddie decided the kids would love the opportunity to play, the park has a court, so voila ... just add some basketballs and you have a great story.

I'm proud and excited for what we do here. Though it's simple, it's important. It helps bring back the semblance of life that existed before Katrina. That's what this is all about.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Points of Light Conference, Philadelphia

So, I was in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly (and sisterly) love, this past week. Points of Light held its annual conference in the heart of the historic city, at the conference center. There were lots of presentations to attend, but I wasn’t able to attend many of them. I spent my time working with Caitlin Brooking to finish the presentation I was supposed to give, with Kellie from Hands On New Orleans, on keeping volunteers engaged in Long-Term recovery.

It was actually a lot of fun to talk about how to keep volunteers motivated and think about long-term recovery in a different light than the traditional building. I wasn’t able to present because I needed to get to New Orleans for the announcement of a partnership between Absolut and Hands On Gulf Coast. More to come on that later.

The conference seemed like a great opportunity to network with folks. I was most happy talk with John from Kaiser about a trip he’d like the Kaiser folks to do to the Gulf in February. Otherwise, there was catching up with the Atlanta staff and experiencing the city.
Overall, it was a good experience and I think both Sara and Caitlin got a lot out of the trip. Sara attended some interesting sessions, while Caitlin was able to present, something she was quite excited to do.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Merger

The merger between Hands On Network and Points of Light Foundation was announced on Monday, 16 July 2007. The announcement came at the opening session of the Points of Light Conference entitled, “The Power of We”. It comes as a positive development given all the time folks in Atlanta have put into exploring whether a merger is possible.

The two organizations expect to operate as a merged entity beginning 1 August, 2007. Within 100 days, both organizations expect to settle some final questions about how to operate together.

What does that mean for Hands On Gulf Coast? The work we do shouldn’t change much. Most folks won’t even notice the difference. I think the staff will notice a difference because there will be new administrative procedures to learn, new people to meet, and new ways of doing business.

As far as coming to visit and volunteer, those opportunities will still be here. If you want to keep abreast of merger details, you can look at the blog

I will certainly keep you posted here how the merger affects us here in the Gulf.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Hands On Olympics

On 14 July, 2007, the first ever Hands On Gulf Coast Olympics were held at John Henry Beck Park. The entire AmeriCorps program and staff were divided into colored teams and given the challenge of coming up with uniforms and the drive to win.

In the morning, no crews went out while they prepared elaborate costumes of make up, plastic, spray paint, capes, and hair spray. The effects were amazing. We had Tighty Whities (with underwear on their heads), the Blue Surges (including Neptune with a trident), Proceed with Caution (... or was it slippery when wet? either way, they yellow folks wrapped in caution tape), Red or Dead (a bunch of zombies, including a kilt-wearing ghoul), Purple Reign (including Prince), Brown (they were potty humor), Silver (not sure what their theme was), and the Irish Car Bombs (the green team lead by 'McBoon').

The games began prompty at 2pm under cloudy skies, threat of severe thunderstorms, damaging hail, and gusty winds. In my role as 'safety first, party pooper', I had to make the announcement that safety comes first and I might metaphorically rain on the parade if the conditions get really bad. Luckily, my fears proved unfounded. The competitors wanted glory and the weather cooperated.

If I had called off the event, we all would have missed out on the dizzy bat relay, water balloon toss, barn yard buddies, obstacle course, tug of war, three-legged race, water melon eating contest, and the chubby bunny.

Each team shined in their own way. Though poor performers, the Read Or Dead had lots of spirit. Green did well with the water ballon toss. And the Blue team just looked the best with their tattered clothes and wind swept hair.

Alan Petz was the main judge and coordinator of the event, even though the Olympics were the brain child of Caitlin Sherman (yes, the sister of Dan {The Dan on the chore board} and Eddie Sherman {construction manager}) and Tim Boon (family friend of the Shermans). If I can digrees for a second, the Shermans win for family involvement - brothers, sister, and cousin are all here for an extended period of time. That's pretty awesome for us and Biloxi!

Back to the competition, my favorite event was the obstacle course. Folks had to run through tubes, slalom the swings, run around a tree, under the new shade structure, and then slide into home on a slip and slide. By the time we got to this event, it was raining, but not so hard that it made the event a pain or dangerous.

The most disgusting event was chubby bunny. I had never heard of it before, but it consists of stuffing marshmellows in your mouth, one at a time, and saying 'Chubby Bunny'. The person with the most marshmellows in the mouth, who can still understandably say the phrase, wins. By the end, there were gobs of marshmellow dribbling down folks' mouths. The taste must have been gross. Tasia won with 27 marshmellows. Yes, 27. She didn't just win, she egged on the other finalist, Robyn, with 'Go ahead, use two hands.' Robyn struggled to keep the marshmellows in, but Tasia could smack talk. Now that's impressive.

To top it all off, the new NCCC team arrived. Hooray! So, it was a great day with fantastic participation from everyone. Every once in a while, we need to cut loose and have a fun day to ourselves.

Great job Tim Boon and Caitlin Sherman for organizing it. Thanks everyone for the spirit and energy you all put into the games. We'll see you next year at the 2nd Annual Hands On Olympics, Alumni Edition.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Recovery, etc.

I'm working on a presentation for the Points of Light Conference that I'm supposed to attend next week. A little partnership agreement with Absolut (yes, the spirits company) has altered my plans, but I'm still doing the research on the state of recovery along the Gulf Coast. You'd think that with my job as the director, I'd be the most informed about recovery.

I'd like to dispel that myth. I do know quite a bit, but I rarely have time to sit and read the reports that folks write. My job is to make sure there's food in the pantry, money to buy materials for projects, health insurance is taken care of, and more. I also am charged with helping to make the organization sustainable both fiscally and mentally (ha, ha, terrible play on words).

So, this presentation, which is about keeping volunteers engaged in long-term recovery is an opportunity to raise the awareness at a national level about the needs of the post-Katrina Gulf Coast, provides me an excuse to work late and spend a lot of time reading documents about the state of recovery.

One interesting report I found is the following from the Rockefellar Institute of Government. It provides a broad overview of recovery, now 18 months underway, across Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. Some areas have experienced explosive growth, while others whither under poor management and staggering losses. You can read the full report here.

Another interesting blog site is now permanently linked to our web page. It's called Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch. The Institute for Southern Studies, out of Durham, NC, pulled together a team to keep up with the pace and condition of Katrina and Rita recovery. I just looked through the board of advisors for the site and it includes Julian Bond, who is a Distinguished Professor at American University and a Professor of History at University of Virginia (go Hoos!!) and (not least) Chairman of the National Board of Directors for the NAACP. So, all that's to say, it seems to me to be a credible blog for covering recovery and the social justice side of things.

So, stay informed like I'm doing. Read the blogs, read the reports, and don't forget what's going on in Washington affects what happens down here.

:: Chris ::

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

AmeriCorps - Round 3

So the Hands On Gulf Coast AmeriCorps program is in full swing. This week marks our third orientation period, with roughly 20 new members!!!!

Last night was the first team meeting for current and new members to meet one another. Talk about an amazing site. There were roughly 50 people in the room, all AmeriCorps members, working in some way shape or form to rebuild the Gulf Coast.

I have to give a huge shout out to Sara, Caitlin, and Sheli who run the program. They've managed to assemble an amazing array of people to work in areas as diverse as building, youth engagements, arts, trail building, community outreach, and volunteer management. AmeriCorps members comes from the community and come from all over the country. We have partners in Biloxi, Gulfport, and Bay St. Louis.

What amazes me most is the potential of the folks in the room. One member recently came to Caitlin and told her that she wants to start a non-profit focusing on the services that women need when they are victims of domestic violence. This is a direct result of the work that AmeriCorps has enabled her to do.

Other folks have learned to build houses and are off doing that now. Still others have moved from AmeriCorps positions with Hands On to permanent employment in and around Biloxi. Dan went to the Boys and Girls Club. Karissa went to manage a grant looking at women in construction. Anne has a job at the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum.

This year has been great. Next year will be better. As a staff we've learned a lot about AmeriCorps and we're formulating our plan for engaging the community and community partners. I'm excited about the possibilities that the AmeriCorps program provides the members and the work it enables in the community.

Friday, July 06, 2007

The 4th and Energy

During the week of the 4th, Hands On slowed down. To give the AmeriCorps members and volunteer leaders a break, we closed to short-term volunteers on the 4th and 5th. For the entire week, we had maybe one or two volunteers, so the base was pretty empty.

It was weird to come into work in the morning and see no one around. There were no folks huddled around the back awning getting their morning smoke. There were no cars lined up ready to go to work. The few people eating breakfast in the morning were swallowed up by the empty, cavernous main room.

On the 4th, a couple folks hosted barbecues. There was one at Eddie and Sheli's, one at Sara and Caitlin's, and one over at Doug's. Folks kinda migrated between the festivities, before migrating to the beach for fireworks. I was exhausted, so I passed on the fireworks display.

I heard it was a little wild. Lots of folks on the beach, drunk, with explosives in their hands. Sounds like a recipe for disaster. This was the entire beach and the entire population that turned out for the fireworks display off the west end of Deer Island. I even heard about the ridiculousness from my landlord.

Thursday was nice and chill, too. Still, one of the comments I heard when we returned to work this week was that it was good to have people around. There's a certain energy that comes with all of the people who come into the building. Though there are often complaints about long-term volunteers not making short-term volunteers feel welcome, I don't think the relationship is as simple as that.

When we all come down here to serve, the folks who are here for a short time bring energy that reinvigorates all of us. I'm not a psychologist, but I can see how simply coming down to work helps keep our long-term volunteers going. The trip to the Gulf helps validate the commitments we have all made to rebuilding the coast. We're sorta like the residents. Simply being here shows you care and that's really important to us.

Perhaps with many of us now living off base and having been here almost a year, we are like the residents. Though we're only temporary, we're still residents. The psychological impact we have on long-time residents is the same the short-term volunteers have on us.

So, keep the energy up. As I write this, I know I've mixed my audiences between everyone and those who aren't going to volunteer with us until they grow mold. For the short-time volunteers, keep coming. We need you. The Gulf Coast needs you. For the long-time volunteers, keep it up. What you do day in and day out is impressive both from the physical accomplishments and the psychological impact of bringing hope to those who have little.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Collected Random Thoughts

I have been meaning to get back to the blog for a long time. Ever since Carrie O'Neil left back in March, I wanted to write something about her departure. Now, three months later and about 15 people later, there are a lot more departures to write about. The most recent departures were Molly and Anne, preceded by George, Tosh, Heath, Luc, Falcon, Michelle Hamburger, Kate Magro, Ali McLean, Karissa (to ECD), Dan (to B&G Club), Elly (to the church), Guillermo (to ECD Hope) and others whose names are not coming to me right now.

The departure of so many people changes the nature of the place. Though it's sad to see our friends go, we know they're going on to do great things in other places. The experiences we have here at Hands On serve us well in meeting the challenges of our next big adventures, whether that's building a house, taking a road trip, going to a yoga retreat, or going to Africa.

I know that everyone who comes down to volunteer leaves changed by the experience they have here. The community of volunteers, the need in the Gulf, and the impact of the work transform people. I think the folks who chose to stay longer, or were able to stay longer, walked away with life enriching experiences that will guide them into the future. In whatever endeavor they undertake, they will excel.

Though we lose great friends, the world gains movers and shakers. As Kate said before she left, this is just the beginning.

To focus solely on those who have departed misses those who are still here and continue to grow and contribute. There have also been a spate of one-year anniversaries - Brian Deubert, Sara Hamilton, Marj R. (don't want to misspell your last name :)), Kristen Kernan, and Brannon Weeks to name a few.

Their dedication and the dedication of the new AmeriCorps members and long-term volunteers who work at Hands On continues to help the organization grown in its mission and its capability to serve residents of the Gulf Coast. The dedication of our long-time volunteers, AmeriCorps members, and staff cements Hands On as a go-to organization in the minds of the state, county, local, and neighborhoods governments and citizens.

This past week, Faith from the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund came for a sight visit to see how their grant money was being spent. The Fund gave Hands On money to match the AmeriCorps grant we received from the state. In return, we named six Bush-Clinton Fellows who come from diverse backgrounds ranging from local residents to recent college grads. For Faith's site visit, we had a round-table discussion with the Fellows.

It was reassuring and reinvigorating to hear how Hands On has provided these folks leadership and personal development opportunities that they would never have otherwise had. Each person had an overwhelming sense of having found purpose in volunteer service and having gained so much from the opportunity to live and work in the Gulf.

If I had a better memory, I would intersperse quotes that folks made. All I can relay is the overwhelming sense of pride that I felt and that Sara, Caitlin, Sheli, Eddie, and everyone else must feel when they hear the folks they mentor say what an impact Hands On has had in their lives and in the trajectory of their lives. We all have had a hand in shaping where each other is going. That's the great part of this volunteer community.

With that, I'll wrap up my random Sunday morning - now afternoon - thoughts. Every work place has its challenges and frustrations. Sometimes we get wrapped up in the set backs and let our anger build. It just takes a day at the park, listening to volunteers talk about their experience, or just chatting with folks on the work site to realize this is an awesome place that gives folks opportunities they would never have elsewhere.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Animal Rescue Update

Due to my lack of public speaking skills I thought it would be beneficial to start blogging more often about my work. About a week ago John "Wild Man" Wildeman and myself went on a 22 hour animal transport to Denver, Colorado where they would be picked up and driven to Seattle to finish out their journey. It was probably the most stressful and chaotic one to date. The animals were provided by the Waveland Animal Shelter and the LSPCA. The conditions of the Waveland Shelter have always been a topic of interest when conversing with other animal rescuers so I prepared myself for the worst possible situations. We were able to transport 61 animals out of MS and LA which is fantastic (it would have been 62 but we lost a 5 week old kitten mid transport due to reasons unknown). Unfortunately, most of the transport had acquired either kennel cough or upper respiratory infections which was something I had expected since most of the animals I was given had started out the trip sick. Other than that the remaining 61 had made it to Seattle safely and were given another chance at finding loving owners. This transport left me a little more disheartened about my work but at the same time inspired to continue my pursuit to make a difference.

On a lighter note, currently I am fostering three puppies and five kittens of all different ages. The puppies were sort of a "gift" from the Waveland shelter when they were trying to transport them even though they were showing signs of Parvo. However, only one of them tested positive for parvo and was treated immediately. So hopefully the other two remain healthy because parvo is a rather pricey treatment. The pups are going to be transported to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida where I am positive they will be adopted out in the first week... they're adorable.
Two of the kittens that I'm fostering were found at Ms. Ethel's by Quincy. After a bath and an hour of brier and tick pulling they are doing well and will start in a foster home next week. Then there's stegosaurus who is a 3 week old kitten I've been bottle feeding since she was 2 days. She's louder than ever but she's alive and will be having her first doctors visit sometime this week. Lastly, I still have Sid Vicious and the Beast two kittens from the litter of five I bottle fed. They're adjusting pretty well to living in a house and they received their first vaccinations last week. Hopefully I can find them homes sometime soon but they might have to be transported up North if nothing else.

With Black Puppy, Marley, and Frankenstein to top off the bunch we've got quite the house full. There's never a dull moment...

TNR is going...well, it's never been the most interesting topic but... I've been wrangling some cats so.. that's cool. As for our disaster preparedness program I've been fighting through it and hopefully I will have a better grasp of things in the weeks to come.

I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

A Day on the Water

As the Director of Hands On Gulf Coast, I don't often get the opportunity to spend an entire day working in the field. Usually, there is the crisis du jour to attend to, or there's a very real need to address administrative issues so the organization can continue to operate.

Last week, Anne Kotleba, asked me if I wanted to come to her most recent project. She has been working with Gulf Shores National Seashore in Ocean Springs, MS for the past couple weeks. She and others have led groups of volunteers to rebuild picnic tables, put in grills, rebuild fence line, and put signs on some of the islands to warn visitors of nesting birds. The Rangers and Resource managers love us for what our volunteers have done.

Today I finally took the entire day to participate in the service that all our volunteers get to do. Though it was a pretty light day of work - we just put a few flags into the sand to mark a trail and watched the rangers put two metal sheets on two separate trees to keep raccoons from being able to climb into the osprey nests and eat the eggs - I had a great time. More importantly, I relearned something.

The rangers were ecstatic that we were out there helping. Gary Hopkins, a 20+ year veteran of Gulf Shores, wanted to know how he could keep the volunteers flowing. Awesome. Sounds like a perfect opportunity for local volunteers to plug in. More interestingly, he and Tom were just so happy to be a month ahead of schedule. As volunteer work goes, we didn't do much, really. It was a super chill day for the four of us out there. For Gary and Tom, it was a productive day beyond their wildest imagination.

Their reaction makes me think about the impact of our service. Even the tasks that seem insignificant can have such a huge impact on the morale of the folks receiving them. I think this is an important lesson to keep in mind as we all try to help residents of the Gulf Coast recover from the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina.

For every volunteer who turns their nose up at work with the Salvation Army, the Humane Society, the Boys and Girls Club, or de-molding, remember that your service has an invisible impact on those who receive it. All the work we do for the communities along the Gulf Coast is aids in the recovery. Every little bit helps. It's amazing how a little caring and effort goes such a long way to raise spirits and provide hope.

I relearned that important lesson today.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Tikkun Olam (to repair the world)

David here, from Bridge to Biloxi (Concord, Massachusetts) with a few words that Kate suggested that I post. My wife (Beth) and two of my kids (Jake and Lily) came to HOGC in January - it was my 60th birthday, and I asked them to come and work here with me for a week as a way of marking the occasion. I had been to HOGC previously, and I knew that they would be inspired by the work that's going on in Biloxi. Before we left, I wrote a few words to share during the time, after dinner, when those who are leaving say good-bye:

"I want to say a big thank you to the long-term volunteers and staff for creating this incredible place and all the structure that goes with it – organizing the projects and pulling together the tools, supplies, and money that make all this good work possible. There’s an important principle in Judaism – it’s a commandment of Jewish law – called Tikkun Olam. Tikkun Olam means to repair the world. The Talmud says: “It is not up to you to finish the work, yet you are not free to avoid it.” No one can fix it all; but we all have a part to play. What’s going on down here could not be more important as an example of Tikkun Olam.

"I say that for three reasons. First, of course, it makes a huge impact in repairing the lives of the people that receive help from Hands On.

"Second, it makes a huge impact on the volunteers, repairing our hope and giving us all a taste of what is possible when people share a vision and a common purpose and learn how to work together.

"Finally, it repairs the wider world. The broken homes and broken lives that lay in the wake of Katrina were not caused entirely by the storm. Gutting these mold-encrusted houses reveals what ramshackle affairs many of them are. Their sad condition is a legacy of the racism and poverty in this country – a culture that says it’s OK for the poor to live in houses that are nearly falling apart, that are vulnerable to severe weather. Katrina peeled back the veneer that hid this neglect from our collective view. I believe that the work that’s going on down here tells the wider world that broken houses and broken lives are not acceptable, regardless of whether the damage was caused by hurricane, massive societal neglect, or both.

"So when I come to Biloxi, I remember Tikkun Olam. Healing the world: it’s not just a good idea – it’s the law."

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Master

We love Guillermo for many reasons: his brilliance at organizing music tournaments; his dazzling intellectual feat of managing a massive mold study; his willingness to reflect, reconsider, and stand up for what he believes is right.

... (around 10am)

Today, we had a bit of a crisis panic. The Internet went dead. Not new in Biloxi. In the past, thunderstorms have disrupted the DSL signal. But now, the phone lines were out, too. The Church's phones were out too. Sounds pretty mysterious.

One of the trusty NCCC members, Brian (?), called Bell South and had a technician come out to investigate. We looked around and saw that the beautiful patch of sand that is supposed to become a green house for Karissa, had a new, deeply dug trench. On either side of the trench was a black cable with wires in it.

... (around 2pm)

Guillermo comes to knock on my door. "I cut the cable this morning when I was digging," he said with a smile on his face. "In the future, could you let the front office know, so we can deal with it?" "I didn't put it together until 10 minutes ago. I was digging in the garden, then went inside. The Internet was down, so I gave Eddie a call to go out to lunch. It didn't dawn on me the digging and the Internet being down were related." He said it with such an amused smile, it was hard to be anything but amused by the story.

Brilliant Guillermo analyzes mold data and uses random number generators to order aspects of the music tournaments. Brilliant Guillermo didn't realize the chopped cable and the lack of Internet were related.

To his credit, who puts a critical cable about 3in under the surface of the ground? Ah well, life at Hurricane Camp ... never a dull moment!

A day in the office

It’s quieter than usual in the office. Everyone’s here. Sue’s been making calls yelling at crew leaders about their delinquent receipts, Brian and Erin are solid as the new NCCC admins. And Kate’s here of course.

It’s just that she can’t speak.

But that’s not stopping her.

White board in hand she directs me, Erin, Sue, Brian, and Dan, scribbling notes as we guess the question before it’s written, or interpret facial expressions. It’s Dan though, who is really the key component in Kate’s communication. He answers her cell phone “Hi, Mom!,” flirts with crew leaders when they call the office number, and curses for her on cue, when something inevitably goes wrong. Another highlight occurred at the dinner meeting, when Dan spoke for Kate in her barrage of announcements, including the spring break classic “Ladies! No tampons in the toilets! I’m a woman, I get it!” as he hid behind a table.

Having Kate mute simply makes the amount of work she does for this organization more obvious. She has claimed the Board of Work, a 4x6 white board out of commission during spring break, to keep a huge to-do list. The top of it reads “Kate’s War Board – AKA I Will Win,” it lists the number of emails to answer (157), work to complete for night classes, and a variety of other reminders, including to sleep. As the true Queen of Spring, she is not letting a little laryngitis get in the way of managing over 100 spring breakers.

So, as Brian and Erin practice their telepathy, people with perfectly good voices find themselves feeling the need to whisper their responses, and everyone feels a little closer to Kate as they complete her sentences… the office goes on.

Elizabeth (the) Falcon

Week One: Tuff Stuff Challenge 2007

Based on the wise wits of Dan “Sarg” and the insightful add libs of Kate and Kahl a new Hands On test of will has begun. Tuff Stuff Challenge 2007 unites the physical challenges of completing 2000 push ups, crunches, and/or pull ups (PCP’s) within a 6 day span, with the mental aspect of memorizing 7 facts about Biloxi and hurricane Katrina.

The task has had a rippling effect, causing groups of people to randomly drop to do push ups and crunches mid conversation, while this may not seem too kosher it has thus far been a positive integration into the Hands On environment by giving long-termers and short-termers a common cause off of the work site. While William and Mary currently have the lead against the long-termers, Ithaca is questioning whether or not they have any tuff stuff in them at all.

- Erin aka Kahl

International Women's Day strikes Beck Park

Thanks to Chris for the shout out to International Women's Day!

I was a little nervous going in, never knowing what to expect at events in East Biloxi. The last event I had done with Coastal Women for Change was the NAACP radiothon, and attendance was less than expected. So I wasn't sure what to make of the fact that Sharon was telling me she was getting calls from across the coast from women interested in coming out.

Maybe I should back up.

About a month ago I met with Sharon, president of Coastal Women for Change, an East Biloxi women's group founded after the storm to address the new set of needs, and proposed to her an idea I had been carrying around basically since I had joined thier group... to hold the first ever International Women's Day (IWD) celebration, bringing together residents and volunteers for a day of fun and activities. When I talked to Sharon, she jumped on it. Within a week I was getting emails from her and the groups she was inviting. We planned performers, vendors, and educational tables to come out to Beck Park, the Saturday after IWD, March 10. Through these emails we learned that there had been one previous Women's Day celebrations in MS; last year a group had held an event in Jackson. We were still the first to bring it to the Coast.

I wanted to celebrate on March 8th, the day celebrated around the world. It was a Thursday, so not well suited for a community event, but there are many women in East Biloxi who sit in their FEMA trailers all day, who won't be able to make it to an event in the park, so on March 8th, 100 potted plants in hand, volunteers from Hands On and CWC set out door-to-door to find women in the community and give them a token of our appreciation. I think both volunteers and residents had a great day!

So back to Saturday. With an army of NCCC ladies, I loaded up the car with tables, sound system, and toys for kids to head out to Beck Park. Karissa was there with her community gardeners, watering plants and handing out seeds. Although it started out slow, by mid-day and lunchtime, there was a strong showing of East Biloxi residents and Hands On volunteers enjoying the perfect spring weather, eating in the grass, and talking to the the different tables. CWC was selling thier first round of t-shirts, and they looked great, even on Darnell of the American Friends Service Committee. Many people could be seen with the reflecting house numbers that Triad was giving out, or buttons from the ACLU.

All in all, a good time was had by all.

I think for me, the best part was just being able to hand out with my friends - the members of CWC and other community members - and just catch up while we sat in the sun.

Sharon was also pleased with the event, and is already talking about making this an annual event.

I think that's a great idea.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

March - 1st Week In Review 2007

The first week of March Madness 2007 seems to have finished with smashing success. Though there were a challenges, they were nothing out of the ordinary that derailed our steady momentum of getting stuff done in East Biloxi. What were some of the highlights for me? Let's see if I can remember:
  • Tana - So, we had Tana from Atlanta come down at the beginning of the week to help facilitate some meetings and provide some training for the staff. Some of us met her in early February and thought it would be great for her to come down to see life in Biloxi and help us work on team building, leadership development, and effective communication. Tana delivered. Her experience and skill at getting to the root of issues was just what we needed.
  • Spring Break - And so March Madness 2007 begins. Molly, Elizabeth (Falcon), Sue, and Kate all put tremendous effort into preparing for Spring Break. Molly spent countless hours planning service and meals. Falcon spent her time thinking about how to engage the college groups in reflection sessions and tell them how to take home what they've experienced down here. Sue worked to have the base ready for the Spring Breakers and order food. Kate worked her operations magic, in addition to ensuring the beds and tents and t-shirts were all squared away. By all appearances, things have gone smoothly. Great job team!!!
  • Caitlin - Our second AmeriCorps Program Coordinator arrived to us from Boston on Tuesday 6 March. Fantastic! She comes with lots of community service experience, a vision for the world, a smile on her face, and a fresh perspective on how to help the AmeriCorps Program maximize its impact. I'm excited about Caitlin, and I know Sara's thrilled to have her on the team.
  • AmeriCorps Member Development - We had the first member development session this Friday. Though orientation was just last week, we need to get into the routine of every other week. From what I could hear and see, the session went well. Friday afternoons are tough time because folks are tired from a week of work, but hopefully they provide some closure for the service spent in the community. One glitch was on my side of things. I had worked to get everyone email addresses. Come to find out not all the passwords were properly setup ... ugh. Back to the trouble ticket system.
  • Gulf Islands National Seashore - Anne and Erin lead a team of intrepid park-bench, put'er togetherers to Gulf Islands Nat'l Seashore in Ocean Springs. Anne wandered out there one day, made some inquiries about work, and voila. A perfect opportunity to be outdoors during March in Mississippi. Talk about fantastic. Folks g0t to put together park benches and make fire pits. By all accounts, a great project and a great way for Hands On to help the Gulf Coast, literally.
  • Education Meeting - A highlight for me was meeting with a roomful of folks - Ali, Anne, Sara, Sarah (a VISTA from MGCCC), Will, and Caitlin - to talk about how we're going to do more for educational programs along the Gulf. We talked about the programs we're already doing - Boys & Girls Club support, tutoring, mural projects, etc. - and we talked about how to expand our impact in this area. A constant theme through the discussions was the need to determine what organizations are already doing along the Gulf Coast. A couple of the exciting thoughts that came from the meeting were creating outdoor education experiences and putting together a science lab for Nichols elementary.
  • Timber Framing Course - in Alabama ... A couple weeks ago, Mike, came to volunteer with Hands On. He loved what we were doing, so Mike offered Eddie, the construction manager, a spot in the timber framing course Mike was teaching in Alabama. Though it is Spring Break and we pretty much need all available leaders for the crews, we managed to let Eddie and Brian get to the class. They learned so much, had a great experience, and really got some folks excited about coming down to volunteer. Mike is apparently super excited about the prospect of building a timber-frame house from the ground up. What is a timber framed house? According to, a timber framed house "is a specialized version of timber post and beam that is built like furniture, utilizing wood joinery such as mortise and tenon, held in place with wooden pegs." Regardless of the technical definitions, Eddie and Brian learned a lot and will bring their honed skills back to Biloxi to make our houses last for the next 100 years!
  • International Women's Day in Beck Park - Elizabeth Falcon worked with Sharon of Coastal Women for Change to pull together a gala (one of my new favorite words) event in the beloved, beautiful John Henry Beck Park. There were lots of local groups who came out to share information about their organization - from the Mom's Network to Avon. Hands On was of course there to represent. I was only there for the morning, but Falcon told me that around lunch time tons of folks from the community poured into the park to see what was going on. I'm glad we could be a part of the day's festivities. The history of International Women's Day is fascinating, you should check it out
  • Mr. George's Celebration -We celebrated the near completion of this house. Read the blog entry for more ruminations.
Not bad for a week's work. I'm proud of what everyone is accomplishing in their area of expertise. Each little bit helps move us and the Gulf Coast along the long road to recovery.

Mr. George's Celebration

I'm sure Luc will write about Mr. George, too. That's great, and he should. He, along with countless other volunteers put tons of work into the house to turn what was a gutted, broken husk of a house, into Mr. George's new home. Though there's still a bit more work to be done - connecting the gas, putting on gutters, and a few HVAC finishing touches - the house is pretty much done. After 18 or so months of sitting next to his house, Mr. George is almost ready to move in.

This is really our first house. Yes, if you've read our blogs, you'll know that we worked on the Thornton's house, we finished Cynthia's house with Bridge to Biloxi, and we've been working on three houses sponsored by Guiding Light.

Mr. George's house is different. It has our blood, sweat, and tears - literally. I'm sure someone got a scratch somewhere that lead to the blood; the sweat and tears were more obvious. Hands On took Mr. George on as a case almost a year ago. He had few funds to rebuild, so we did what we could when we could. We gutted, demolded, put on part of a new roof, then slowly, slowly started the process of reframing, hanging the sheetrock, painting, installing cabinets, laying floors, and managing the subcontract labor. Along the way, there were real bumps in the road that made us all wonder whether we'd get Mr. George back into his house.

Through it all, tenacious folks like Sheli - the case manager - and big hearted people like Mike Grote, Donnie Fulton, Brian Deubert, Luc Lamarche, and Eddie Sherman all poured what they could into Mr. George's house.

The house is beautiful to behold. Each member of our construction crew had a hand in it. I won't be able to mention everyone, but I'll try to get the list right: Yvon on painting; Brannon and Amanda with drywall; Marj as all around get-'er-done girl; Michelle and Doug with trimming and other odd jobs; Russian Mike with fine carpentry; Robyn with the sublime (thanks Woody) floors ... Other folks, not around as long, but crucial to the final stages of completion included Charlie, Marshall, Kenny, and countless others whose names I can't place.

I'm proud of what our team work has accomplished. Everything from Sheli's tireless case management of donations, grants, and funds, to the worker's tireless devotion to detail and care for Mr. George. The completion of the house is a true testament to team work, compassion, and the transformational power of service to those in need.


Last night, we welcomed Mr. George home, even though there's more work to do. Most of Hands On turned out to show our support. Tony fried up some fish, barbeque'd chicken and dogs, and generally cooked up a ton of food for us all. Fantastic!! Felix, the HVAC/Electrician even made it out.

What a way to cap the first week of Spring Break.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Airman & President Bush

One of our very own, Alan Petz, received the President's Volunteer Service Award from the President himself at the foot of Air Force 1 on Keesler Air Force Base. Awesome! Alan has been with us since shortly after the storm, back when the organization in Beauvoir United Methodist Church was Hands On USA. Alan's done a lot for us. Rather than read my blog, you should read the Sun Herald article about him.

Alan's photo made front page of the Sun Herald and his story was page A2. Pretty awesome! We're proud of Alan and what he's accomplished with us. Great job!!!

Here's the article from the local paper:

    An airman who admits he shuns attention will be the center of attention today in Gulfport when President Bush gives him the President's Volunteer Service Award.

    Alan Petz, a Peoria, Ill., resident assigned to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, will receive the honor for his volunteer work with Hands On Gulf Coast. The group is a disaster-response project of a network of 62 nonprofit groups from around the world.

    Bush will present the award shortly after Air Force One lands in Gulfport, according to a White House news release. The presidential visit is Bush's 14th trip to the Mississippi Coast since Hurricane Katrina.

    The award recognizes children, adults, families or groups who have made a difference in their communities through volunteer service. The category that honors Petz is for volunteer service of 100 or more hours. Petz has donated about 720 hours in hurricane recovery work.

    "I like to stay under the radar," Petz said. "I don't do things to be recognized. But this is an honor."

    Petz, 22, said he is a bit nervous but excited. His mother and sister will be present for the award, given before the presidential entourage heads to Biloxi. He is assigned to the 81st Medical Operations Squadron Nutritional Medicine Flight. He works at the Keesler Medical Center dining facility.

    Petz was stationed in Biloxi when Katrina struck.

    "I'm as much a victim as other members of the community," Petz said. "It has given me a lot of enjoyment to get out in the community and help others restore their lives. It's just amazing all that's been done."

    After Katrina, the base hospital was closed for repairs and Petz was assigned to help Hands On Gulf Coast. He led teams of volunteers to remove trees, clean debris and gut homes. In April 2006, he was reassigned to base duties, but has continued as a Hands On volunteer. He helps rebuild homes, designs healthy menus, prepares hot meals for volunteers and also maintains their vehicles.

    "Hands On has become like a second family to me," he said.

    A Keesler spokesman said this is a banner week for Petz. He's due for promotion to airman 1st class on Friday.

    Bush, in his January 2002 State of the Union address, created USA Freedom Corps, an Office of the White House, to strengthen and expand volunteer service. More than 61 million Americans volunteered in 2006, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Listen to This: MP3s From Our Favorite Hurricane Katrina Disaster Relief Organization

Music from Hands On Summer '06. I'll keep adding to it when I have access to the internet. I've already extracted all the files and just need to upload them. Some sound crackly because of various errors and hardware and strategic shortcomings. Some should be roughly CD quality, but not in this first wave. The difference will be obvious.

Thank you An awesome, awesome website.

Marco X

The summer '06 posts on this blog are by far the greatest. The greatest ever.

Also... Anyone, I kinda need a job-- I'm multi-talented. I might have to sell back the Lexus soon.

Don't forget to join the 169 members of the "Hand On Gulf Coast Biloxi" group on Facebook!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Management Days

Well, I spent the day talking with folks. That's what my job amounts to. Though it sounds like I don't enjoy it, that's not the case. It's amazing how the words move into action. So by talking to lots of folks, we're able to get lots done...

Anyway, what did we talk about today. Well, we talked to the community partners about the AmeriCorps program, what their responsibilities are, and what their members need to participate in. I also talked about drywalling Rozzina Manning's house, writing a recommendation for Kate to Samaritan's Purse, about Hands On Gulf Coast, AFH and the future of building, and there was probably something else in there.

The AFH conversation with Mike Grote was pretty interesting. They're working on their model home program and their funder is interested in perhaps expanding the program into a second phase. That means more homes for East Biloxi, which is pretty awesome. Mike also said he would provide some introductions to local folks whom I haven't yet met. These local folks would be connections to businesses. I talked a bit about my thoughts on where we're headed as an organization, and that's always exciting.

There's great potential for this place. There are so many talented, committed folks who want to be here long term. There are areas where our volunteers can have a big impact - education, public health, capactiy building, and (of course) physical building. They're broad and unrelated, but I think that we can support efforts in these areas by really working some unique new and existing partnerships.

A perfect example of an existing partnership is Kaiser Permanente. They recently came to visit us. A group of 30 or so employees worked in the houses and and painted a mural in Coastal Family Health Care's Gulfport clinic. John, the Kaiser employee who organized the trip, said he would be interested in planning a larger even, perhaps next February, that involved Coastal and more of the medical staff. Very cool. So, we have someone interested, we have work, we have the need, we just need to connect all the dots into a project. It's exciting to think about the lasting impact we can have on Gulf Coast.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


I went to New York City to see a screening of the Guiding Light episode that's about their week in Biloxi. Talk about awesome. First, I spent the morning in the Hungarian Pastry Shop geeking out with an Excel spreadsheet, coming through HOGC's finances. Then I moseyed over to another cafe where I talked shop regarding the AmeriCorps program and the opportunity to really affect the public health landscape through some strategic partnerships with the Children's Health Fund and Coastal Family Health Center.

After a few phone calls, I wandered the three miles from my hotel to the CBS studio where I got to see an advance screening of the 70th anniversary episode of Guiding Light that airs today (14 Feb). I don't have words to describe the episode. It's sincere in it's portrayal of the destruction, despair, fun, and hope that you find along the Gulf Coast.

The episode focuses on the cast as they experience the life of a typical Hands On Gulf Coast volunteer. The experience of helping Ro, Ms. Gerda, or Ms. Ethel touched them in a way that has transformed them. Ellen Wheeler did a fantastic job capturing the honest emotions of the cast members. I almost cried and I live the experience every day.

I wish I were with the building crew to see the show. I want to see their faces and hear the comments as the episode unfolds. Perhaps next time Guiding Light comes down.

I'm happy I came to NYC, though. I got to chat with cast and crew members I didn't get to chat with in Biloxi. It was my opportunity to connect a little with the folks who bonded with Luc, Eddie, Sheli, Brian, and the rest of the gang.

Many props to the building folks, admin folks, and support folks who made the endeavor such a smashing success. Many thanks to Guiding Light for rebuilding three residents' homes.

:: Chris ::

Sunday, February 11, 2007

At long last

Well, I'm glad that Luc and the building crew have taken up the slack on my blog postings. Hands On Gulf Coast has gone through a few transitions that have had me focusing my time mostly on a couple areas that didn't involve the awesome work the volunteers do daily in the field. Rather, I've been focused on internal issues of attending to the organization's structure and ability to deliver well-crafted service to the community from volunteers who care.

OK, what does all that mean? I took over as the Director in early January and have been trying to have the staff members focus on some house keeping items and the mammoth AmeriCorps program that starts (in earnest) at the end of February. It's been a tough transition in a lot of ways - unlearning old habits, relearning new ones, and spreading wings to go down a different path in a different way.

As a staff, we went to a retreat and planning session in Atlanta, where our parent organization (Hands On Network) is located. We had a couple goals, one of which was to ensure we can give the building program a real chance to become sustainable and understand how we can effectively fundraise. Both of these goals help us along the path of becoming an independent, 501(c)3 organization dedicated to serving the needs of residents along the Gulf Coast.

I think all the staff walked away excited about the meetings we had and about the potential for Hands On Gulf Coast to be a real force in the community. We're also really excited (and terrified) by the AmeriCorps program. Though there are new rules (it's a Federal program, there's a rule for everything!), it's an opportunity to strengthen our own organization while empowering our local partner organizations to continue helping the community.

Well, that's my management update. It's not glamorous like building or working with the Boys and Girls Club, but it's necessary to keep us moving forward. Hopefully, I'll be able to get back out to see the work in the field soon.

:: Chris ::

Friday, February 09, 2007

Building Empire Update 5

We've got no short term volunteers because of a staff training/regrouping period so its pure long termer sweat these days. In short, here's whats crackin at the houses:
Mannings: Michelle and Mike are leading hanging gypsum boards in the neglected rooms. Progress is steady and will drastically speed once the walls are hung. Rock on.
Curry's: Woody and George are heading up leveling out the floors in Deub's absentia (vacation) and have made big progress in resheeting the exterior walls. This place has been a huge endeavor. Its nice.
Gerda's: Dr. A and Dr. B have finished mudding and are shooting texture currently. Paint's on the horizon.
George's: Hitting the floors hard the past week. Tile and Carpet in. Robyn rocked the tile. Its pretty. Pretty pretty. Dave Perez is a diamond and has hooked us up. Hardwood floors, hanging doors, and baseboards tommorow. Save 1 little spot, the exterior is finished. Huge efforts from The Streaker and Marge. The end is within sight. Oh its beautiful.

Here's some Mr. George pictures:

Deubs, come home. Eddy is back with a crew boss truck. Mike is leaving soon and we will miss him something aweful. The Empire strikes daily!

Building Empire Update 4

Well, we had Guiding Light in town a few weeks back and that was a home run. A big deal for us and them. We loved them. Everyone got to be friends and we worked some serious hours. Hard to sum up quickly. Eddy and Shelly led the charge and everyone was right there behind. We built, people cried, it was good. Cant post pictures of it really becuse someone said not to. Maybe later.

From what we've heard, the episode from their trip will be on CBS on February 14th, during the regular Guiding Light hour. I trust you all know when that is. Check your local listings.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Kudos and Props

The Building Empire is amazing. My past week of working with Hands On on the Guiding Light project was wonderful. Thank you to Eddy, Shelly, and all the hard working volunteers. The amount of work and the quality standard is impressive. Good luck next week!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Building Empire Update 3

The Building Empire has been busting
it seriously for the past 9 days at the Manning house. The floors and trim are underway with walls hung, mudded, and painted. It was a new level of effort and coordination that's been successful thus far. We're shaping up nice for the arrival of our dramatic friends from the north. They seem cool, but on TV its just one tragedy after another. Hopefully the visit will go smoother than their lives. (on tv)

Here's some photos from the big Manning house push.
1. Celebrity guest Dr. G-Mo instructing the freshies on how to keep it reeeaaaalll.

2. House mud wizard on the national syndicate hot seat and LOVING IT!

3. Mystery picture of the week. Any correct guesses gets you a free trip to the spin cycle to watch an old Ice Cream Josh DVD, Rambo or sumthin. 4. No, its not snowin' inside silly heads, we're in Southern Mississippi. Thats sheetrock mud. Gee Whiz.


Tuesday, January 16, 2007


During the Christmas season, Hands On volunteers helped deliver presents to 7 different residents and their families! These residents were adopted by various organizations, thank you to those who made Christmas in Biloxi a success!!

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Seattle Works: Hands On Affiliate from Seattle

There's a group of 6 Seattlites sitting in the Gulfport Airport, waiting for our last minute flight out of town. All 12 of us were originally supposed to head out tomorrow morning, but bad weather changed our plans. But flexibility is a beautiful thing, so while a night out in New Orleans won't happen for us, it does mean we will be able to get back to Seattle in time for work and "life as normal" - whatever that means.

We wanted to share with the HOGC community some blogs that we have been keeping during our trip. Twelve of us from Seattle Works came down last Sunday. Seattle Works is a Hands On affiliate that focuses on the demographic of those in their 20s and 30s. While we regularly volunteer and are involved in our local Seattle community, this is our first trip out of town. We have been volunteering at HOGC for the last 6 days. For details, feel free to visit our group's blog.

Being Seattlites, not only did we make our mark by starting the Coffee Whisperer tradition (well, it isn't a tradition until y'all carry it on - so make Jaxon proud!)... but a few of us proudly follow the "computer geek" stereotype and have personal blogs devoted to our time in Biloxi.

Ryan and Noelle both have been recording their thoughts and pictures, and will continue to make updates as they process and advocate for the distaster relief efforts. Hey, afterall, Ryan works for Bill and Noelle works for Paul - so you never know what resources can be tapped into.

Also, a quick shoutout to the rockstar long-termers that completely floored us with their dedication, devotion, leadership skills, flexibility, hospitality, gratitude and humor. A huge thank you to Eddie, Luc, Michelle, Aron, Mike, Sheli, Sarah, Kate, Tosh, Brannon, Amanda, Suzanne, Guillermo, Kristin, MJ and Brian - and I'm sure we're forgetting some people - but you guys helped make our week an amazing experience. While your long-term experience inevitably gets a little jaded over time; our interactions with you all deeply impacted our experience.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Building Empire Update 2

If you've been getting all your information from this blog about what's going on, let this attempt to catch you up.
On the 22nd of January, 88 folks from the soap opera Guiding Light including 24 "stars" and 30 "camera people" are coming down to work for a week and film. They are promoting volunteerism. We dig volunteering. Master ochestration by our fearless and brilliant leaders Sheli of Sheli City and King Edward the 11th.
The Building Empire is currently preparing 3 homes to be in various stages of finishing: Framing at Ms. Ethel's, Sheetrock at Ms. Gerda's, and finishing work at the Mannings. Guiding Light is providing the cash, we are providing the skillz and the sweat.
Please be advised we are heading into some serious business in the next 3 weeks. This first picture is a little hint of the level of vestment we've been vesting. Pictured: Framing prodigy Brian Deubert. Note the envisioned stare. Project: Framing Ms. Ethel's. Questions? Please comment.

The other pictures are from Mr. Georges, house. (No soap opera connection but still sweeeet.)

Pictured: UVM master mud painters.
Segundo: THE unphaseable, multitalented, charismatic Michelle Hamburger, ripping through fiber cement for kitchen tile underlayment.
Tercero: Not only do we build beautiful houses for free, we have cute puppies.
Sincerely, Finish Team Amanda and Luc