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.