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Homeowner Dale tells Rev. Wendy about evacuating and the barriers to returning home: "It will be so nice to sleep in a home, not a FEMA trailer next week."

Shelia Cran-Barry mudding the ceiling.

Damage even to the strongest of trees.

Trish Sullivan taping and mudding drywall.

House from New Orleans' St. Bernard's Parish.

Rev Wendy and UUA Moderator Gini Courter mudding ceiling.

House from New Orleans' Ninth Ward.

Pete Rogers having fun with power tools.

Homes in New Orleans' St. Bernard's Parish.

Sophie Rogers and Rev. Wendy von Zirpolo taping drywall.

Volunteers return to Project HOPE for lunch.

Mary's brother John Matthew, homeowner Noon and Anthony discuss fabulous progress hanging sheetrock.

This blog represents the reflections of those who went to New Orleans in December, 2006. Follow this link to see the blog for the February, 2007 trip.

UU Women's Federation Article ~ January 14, 2007

UUCF: Rev. Wendy Von Zirpolo writes of her visits to the Gulf Coast in the lastest issue of the Communicator.

Reflections on New Orleans - January 13, 2007

It's almost two weeks since we returned home - to "reality" in Marblehead - having worked on rehabbing houses for six days in Saint Bernard Parish, LA between Christmas and New Years. The many square mile area devastated by Katrina is another world where just having mountains of garbage finally off the streets is a good thing, and electricity now flowing to neighborhoods a blessing, and getting a job at the reopened MacDonalds a major win.

Project HOPE, an offshoot of Common Ground, is a local Katrina relief organization that cleans out houses damaged by the storm, removes the sheetrock, appliances, and wiring, and - after spraying with a mold-killer - rebuilds the walls, ceilings, and roofs - all at no or reduced cost to the owner and without any paperwork. Mike Handley, HOPE's supervisor, is a 30-something, smart, bearded, idealistic man with a gift with people and organizing. HOPE is unusual in that local residents need only tell Mike they need help with their houses. He checks out whether the house is salvageable, and if so, what's needed, then can often start work within days to provide the requested help. It's a respectful way to do business; the resident doesn't have to prove how financially worthy they are to get the help, and Mike just sees them as people needing help.

Mike was a genius at organizing a constantly-changing workforce of up to 25 short-time volunteers, most with limited skills and tools, to muck houses, sheetrock, mud, and roof within the neighborhood every day, and be sure we got where we could help, were given the tools, materials and instruction needed to get to work, and periodically supervised to be sure they weren't doing something horribly against building, electrical or plumbing code. I was one of the dozen or so members of our church to be there for the week. The work crew I was on sheetrocked, taped, and mudded the walls and ceilings of two-bedroom slab home. The owner and her 10 year-old granddaughter Sabrina, who lived a few feet away in their FEMA trailer, were glad to have us. Sabrina spent a day with my wife Sophia helping her mud the sheetrock in one of the bedrooms.

HOPE is made up of mostly of a few young white volunteers with building skills, a desire to help, and some time on their hands. They live in the empty houses they work on and provide instruction - under Mike's direction - to the many short-time volunteers like us, and also continuity, as many of them stay for several months at time.

I was told by Mike that about 50 percent of the local residents are glad HOPE is there and 50 percent are not. When I asked why so many were against what HOPE was doing, he said the answer was just too complex.

Juline runs a day care center her trailer where she also lives with her three children. At night she opens the door so that three or four homeless men can sleep on the trailer's living floor. I asked her if the men ever gave her any trouble. She looked at me and said, "they're my people." I came to realize it is a matriarchy here where the women have the power. They know what's going on in the community, which helps to keep it healthy.

At a dinner held for us volunteers in a FEMA trailer, Juline's cousin told me that, despite the loss of all she owned, and six days living in the Houston SuperDome, her faith had been strengthened. Looking around the neighborhood where only one in eight residents had returned to live in the trailers next to their homes, it was hard for me to understand why so little had been done here in the 16 months since the storm. At the same time, the residents were hopeful. I know I will go back to Saint Bernard Parish. Much work remains.

For anyone thinking about going to New Orleans - do it! It is hard to describe so anyone who wants specifics I would be glad to talk to you as I imagine any one of our group would.

It was hard to see so much devastation after so many months but it was wonderful to see the work that Project Hope was doing. I loved staying at the head quarters (an experience out of the 60s). We got to hang out with the people running Project Hope- Mike is amazing, the other volunteers, and people in the Neighborhood. It was great to be able to walk to the houses we were working on and meet the owners and neighbors.

I really felt we were able to do work that made a difference. I learned how to sheetrock- a skill I didn't have before- and it was great to see the house we were working on as the wall and ceilings went up.

The trip was a combination of hard work and lots of fun and camaraderie. It was great to work with people you usually talked to at coffee hour. It was fun to go into New Orleans but hard to see how much there is left to be done and how many houses have been abandoned.

Happy New Year to all,

Pete and Sophie Rogers

Two Articles ~ January 1, 2007

12/26/06 - Salem News: UU church members helping out in New Orleans

12/14/06 - Marblehead Reporter: UU Church still helping Katrina victims

Tears on the Sidewalk ~ December 29, 2006

The man was walking his three dogs down Angelica Street and he looked out of place among the gutted homes, piles of debris, discarded cars, and distorted trees. He was walking his dogs in the middle of what was left of a natural battlefield.

Without much encouragement, he told us how he and his wife survived the torrent of water as it roared down his streets, cresting above his neighbor’s homes. The wall of water rumbled down the street like a giant fourteen foot freight train…angry, uncontrolled and inhumanely powerful.

Within two minutes he was inundated in water, scrambling up onto the roof in a futile effort to escape the wrath of the water. He was washed off the roof, desperately clinging to his two dogs and he told us through the tears, that the next thing he knew he was clinging to a tree a quarter mile away.

There on the sidewalk, he told us he saw that his wife managed to hold onto the roof while he looked for his third dog, which had drowned. Then he said, there was an overwhelming silence that enveloped his once lively neighborhood. There were no songs, no voices, no friendly chats. There was just silence.

He managed to swim back to his roof where he stayed with his wife for the next six days. Later he told us, he managed to find a boat and swim to it only to be attacked by red ants. He dove into the water to wash them away and then poured more water into the boat to kill them. Once he stemmed the second attack of nature, the outboard started on the second pull. And he was off toward high ground.

After living through this nightmare, he tells us he doesn’t want any help to rebuilt. “Help those who needs it more. Help the elderly, who can’t do it themselves.” But most of them are not yet back and their homes have been either torn down and left behind in a growing cover of mold.

He lives in a FEMA trailer. And he doesn’t think he needs assistance, even when it’s freely offered.

Now, he cries, The drama lives on and so does the pain. It’s evident everywhere you look. But he tells us there is still hope here and in spots, there is life. Children play in the street. Volunteers from all the country are here working on homes and helping. And the “thank you’s” are everywhere: from car windows driving by, from neighbors and most emotionally, from the owners of the homes who are simplying trying to hold their lives together.

But with the hugs and tears, the man tells us there is still hope here and we will rebuild. It’ll take time but it’ll come back. He wants to walk his dogs in his neighborhood where he’s lived for 50 years. It’s his neighborhood and his neighbors will return.

Anthony Silva

"Sheetrock, Shingles & Showing-Up" ~ December 27, 2006

We gathered around a campfire behind the house we’re temporarily calling home to mark the end of our first day of relief work in New Orleans,. Dinner never tasted so good. Some spent the day hanging sheetrock, others yanking up flooring, some roofing, and another group mudding. Several were kind enough to shop and prepare dinner. Some of our bodies have not felt quite this sore in many years.

We gathered to share the warmth of the fire, chocolate, homemade cookies, singing, and our stories: folks from UUCM, fellow UUs, a young man on break from Rutgers University and a young man on break from the rest of his life. After describing our various work assignments for this day and talking about some of the property owners we met, we share the answers to three questions: What surprised you most since touching down in New Orleans? What has been hardest? What has been most hopeful or inspiring?

What was most surprising? “The vastness of the devastation – you hear about it, and see it on television, but it’s still more than that.” “Actually, it’s not how much there is. It was when we were walking today. When you drive by, it’s just one house after another, one street after another. When you walk, you see one house, and you know that it’s someone’s home, and you really see it.” “A dead dog by the side of the road. I mean, dogs die in Massachusetts, too, but there’s something about seeing a dead dog here that brings it all back.” “I met a fourth grade girl and I asked her about school. She said she was bored, that all they do is color all day. They don’t have text books, or any supplies other than crayons. They say the schools are open, but…” “I was surprised at how good it looks – better than I’d thought it would. There are people here now, there’s power in some of the homes, cars going up and down the streets, and the stench is gone – at least here. It’s very different than when I was here in May.” “It’s better, yes, but it’s still hard every time I come down, just like it was hard on my first visit after Katrina. I expect it will be easier, but it never is.”

What was hardest was realizing the magnitude of devastation in personal terms. “It was one thing to know people had to escape through their roofs, but another to actually meet a person who did that and hear the story from them.” “This man looked out his door and saw a wave of water approaching – grabbed his wife, she grabbed her wedding ring, and they got out the door just in time to be washed away. Six days later they were finally rescued.” Two veterans commented on how familiar it feels here: just like in Vietnam, where services we take for granted like trash collection just don’t make it to the top of the list of priorities.

Although the answers to what was most hopeful or inspiring varied, what was at the center of those answers was all about people. “The spirit of the people I have met is what makes me hopeful,” commented someone. Others, agreeing, chimed in with admiration for the organized, grassroots volunteer organization, the group leading us from Project HOPE ………… and each other. Each having shown-up in different ways. Residents coming home after a lengthy evacuation or barely having left. Volunteers down for a day or a week or some arriving for a week and still here a year later. Each with their own story, each with a story to tell, each with a story yet to live. All changed for having arrived. All changed for having met. All grateful for this day.

The Marblehead crew celebrates Mary and John Gardner's last night in the French Quarter

“Lessons in Loss” ~ Dec 26, 2006

We arrived in New Orleans raring to go, but missing seven bags of luggage. Gathered at the airport, “we” (Sheila Cran-Barry, Mary Gardner, Pete and Sophie Rogers, Anthony Silva, Trisha Sullivan and Rev. Wendy von Zirpolo) will join Charlie and Deb Coulson who traveled via camper down the coast and spent Christmas with the relief volunteers at Project Hope in St. Bernard Parish.

By dinner time, Mary’s brother John will join us, having driven up from Houston, Texas. It’s a drive he has taken many times in the past with pleasure. This time he comes to provide assistance to a place he has loved for many years. We will also be welcomed by new and old volunteers alike at Hope, and after dinner, made by flashlight and lantern, enjoy a bonfire and then settle in to our sleeping bags on army cots in a gutted home currently serving as Hope’s home base. It is cold enough to be sleeping with extra layers, including jackets.

But ~ back to lessons in loss. As we huddle in the airport, frustrated over the seven bags, a conversation with the man supervising baggage claim is in order. Half jokingly, we ask him to pray with us for the return of the luggage on the incoming flight. His smile invites us into deeper conversation. “My, you must deal with a lot of frustrated folks during the course of your day,” we ask. “What keeps you sane and grounded?” after a pause, he smiles once more in reply, “Yes, I’ve seen a lot of lost baggage, for sure, but you know, I know what it is like to lose a home.” He went on to tell us more, of how he stayed behind three days to help others because his own sense of commitment to humanity will allow him to do no other. How he survives the frustrations of the situation by focusing on the people and relationships, because after all, “That’s the only real thing God gave us, each other. The rest of it is all of our own making. God is in you and in me and that’s what we need to remember.” How the hardest thing was watching the incredible bureaucratic waste when that same amount of money could have provided everyone with a new home and a whole lot less pain in the process…and how systems got in the way of people simply talking to each other and finding solutions…of sadness, challenge, hope and humanity.

Yes, Ed Wilson knows what it is like to lose much more than luggage, and as we waited for hours, he offered us beyond the return of our baggage. Lessons come in unexpected conversations. So does church. Ed Wilson, thank you for giving us church on this chilly December afternoon in New Orleans. Thank you and bless you.

Reverend Wendy von Zirpolo
on behalf of the UUCM relief crew in New Orleans