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.