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I feel so blessed to have been able to go on this trip with the group, to see New Orleans in person, to connect with the other 14 people, and with many people in NO. There were many spontaneous moments where I got to be with one other person in the group at a time, sharing about our lives, laughing, crying, talking, walking quietly down a street, working side by side.

Sunday we went to a wonderful picnic on the bayou, south of the city, at the home of 2 of the members of the church where we stayed. Highlights were the huge array of wonderful food, and meeting and talking with Dale, the President of the congregation. Her church, Central UCC, lost its building in Katrina and is worshiping with the St. Matthew’s congregation. We talked about the tensions and joys of maybe merging the congregations — hers is primarily African American and the St. Mathews group is primarily white. My dad had done this in Berkeley/Oakland years ago successfully, and I am interested in increasing the diversity at Mira Vista myself. We agreed to stay in touch. She is so full of joy, she is a pleasure to just hang out with!

Monday: first day of work: I have major back issues, and see a pain doctor (taking twice daily pain meds), chiropractor, masseuse, and 2 physical therapists regularly. I have to do daily back exercises, can’t drive far or sit long, can’t lift heavy stuff. Of course everyone back home was cautioning me to take it easy, be the person who held the clipboard or handed out water, went to the store for more screws, etc. Knowing my love for working hard, my doctor said, "Do not be the most productive member of the team!" To my amazement and delight, I was able to climb up scaffolding and high ladders and to scrape, prime, and paint without pain. I did ask for help when it was time to carry ladders and heavy buckets with paint or water, and someone was always happy to help me. Who would have thought the solution to my back pain would be to fly across the country and do manual labor?! wow.

Tuesday morning I brought my sketchbook to the work site and drew pictures of the beautiful door and the fancy scrollwork on the five eaves in the front of the house. I wondered about the people who had created these details back in the late 1800’s, what language they spoke, and was glad they were able to express their artistry in their work, and that the residents of NO appreciate that beauty.

On Tuesday at lunch time, Kathryn and I took off from painting at lunchtime and went to meet with the staff of Crescent House, the local domestic violence agency. Kathryn works at Stand Against Domestic Violence in Contra Costa County doing public education, and I have done domestic violence legal work (TRO’s, teaching, writing, expert witness work, legislation, etc.) since 1980. The director, Mary Claire, told us of her losses due to "the storm" (no one in NO seems to call it "Katrina"): her house, her car, all the funding for the agency, most of the staff, and the transitional housing building where battered women could live with their children for a few months when they were ready to leave the shelter. She and her staff found out firsthand what it was like to stand in long lines asking for help from the government, and be met with indifference and even sometimes curses. She and the 2 staff who came back after the storm have rebuilt the agency back up to their $2.5 million a year budget by going to the FEMA lines and other places where they knew they would find victims of domestic violence, lobbying the funders to restore funding, and transforming the model of how they provide services. They no longer have a shelter, which is very unusual in this field. Mary Claire explained that she had already wanted to move to a "safe house" model instead, and had even led a working group to discuss this 2 weeks before Katrina hit. She says the new model has battered women and their children staying in individual apartments in various locations, with only one site (the one for women with substance abuse and/or mental health issues) having a staff member staying there. This is much more comfortable for the clients, who had been very stressed by having to live with each other at the shelter, given the major trauma all of them were undergoing and the differences in personalities and needs. I urged Mary Claire and her staff to write about this new model for Domestic Violence Report, a national newsletter I help edit. She has also added other programs and created several whole new agencies to meet the needs the women express — e.g., a new supervised visitation program is about to be launched.

Mary Claire also got the new Family Justice Center going, in record time. In 1/07 while at a meeting in Washington DC, she called the director of the Office on Violence Against Women in the Dept of Justice. She told the director that NO needed one center where survivors of domestic violence could go for all their needs: restraining orders, law enforcement assistance, prosecution, finding a place to live, getting emergency money and food, job help, counseling, children’s services, etc. The OVW director met with Mary Claire within hours of the call and asked her to write a proposal, which she did then and there on the OVW computer. By August 07 the building, an old firehouse downtown, had been located, leased or purchased, renovated, filled with service providers, and the doors opened. Mary Claire is now eyeing the building next door, as the Center has run out of space and more is needed to provide all the services the survivors and their children need.

That night we went out for Cajun food and dancing. Highlights: great gumbo!, talking with Michael about our respective sons, and dancing with Bonnie, Amy, Kathryn, Kathy — I am not sure that restaurant had had women dancing alone, or in pairs, or in threesomes (2 women and a man) before! It was great to see the pride people took in carrying on and sharing their Cajun music, dancing, and food.

The next day, Wednesday, again with paint on my overalls, I got to have lunch with Teri, the attorney who heads the Family Justice Center. She has done domestic violence work for 10 years and loves it. She is hungry to meet with others in this field. She and I had a wonderful time talking shop, including discussing how doing this work is transformative for each of us personally. I know we will keep in touch for years to come.

Then our whole group went on the 4-hour NO tour (1 hour at the church, and 3 in the vans) with John Pecoul, an amazing tour group leader. His love for and depth of knowledge about NO was amazing. Seeing the devastation firsthand, and all that is still left to be done was very sobering. That evening after our red beans and rice dinner, courtesy of the church women, we watched a slideshow by Susan, one of the church members, about Katrina, and talked with Fred, the pastor, about our reactions to it and to the tour. We discussed the need for advocacy, and ideas for mobilizing all the volunteers to lobby Congress. I called one of my co-counselors in Los Angeles and cried about the devastation, especially about the old folks who died in the airport, waiting to be evacuated, cut off from their loved ones. No one should die like that.

Thursday evening, after more painting and a shower, I walked an hour (more than I had expected!) to the home of one of the local co-counseling teachers, Ama. She introduced me to her husband, Ben, a jazz musician. (I got to hear his band play Klezmer music the next night at The Spotted Cat on Frenchman Street, just before the Marsalis show across the way.) Though we had never met, Ama and I instantly felt like old buddies. She and I exchanged a half hour of counseling each, and after telling her all the wonderful things I loved about NO (the old and beautiful buildings, the warm weather, the lovely flowers and huge trees, the excellent food, the warm people, etc.), I cried more about the elders dying at the airport. My dad died last October, at home, after months of hospice care, surrounded by people he loved, peacefully and out of pain. A good death. We have his ashes in the house, waiting for the right time to scatter them. That is how people should die. Not afraid and alone and in pain, lying on the floor of an airport — at the very least they should have been allowed to have their loved ones hold their hands while they passed on.

On Friday, back to work for the last day. In the middle of painting, trying to get everything done before it was time to stop, I loved meeting the homeowners and singing Linda Hirschorn’s round, "I Have a Million Nightingales" with the Amazing Graces. We sang inside the house for Marilyn, the matriarch of the family, and her granddaughter, while tears streamed down her and our faces. I had one of the Krispy Kreme doughnuts Marilyn brought, and got contact information for her daughter, who works for a hotel chain in NO.

I reluctantly said goodbye to the geckos (one brown and one green? or were they actually chameleons?) who had been curiously watching us all week — they live in the floorboards of the house, and like to hang down the tips of their tails and their heads, peeking out from the bottom of the house, above the foundation bricks. Earlier in the week I talked gecko to them, cautioning them not to walk on the new paint til it was dry, and drew pictures of them.

When we were done working on the house on Friday, I loved listening to Michael’s soulful saxophone rendition of "Amazing Grace," followed by the upbeat "Oh When the Saints Go Marching In." We danced/marched/sang/clapped around and through the house while he led us, playing all the way, joyfully celebrating the project and what it stands for. Susan led us in prayer while we stood in a circle, holding hands, a prayer of thanks that we got to give of ourselves in this way and to help increase hope in this beautiful but still suffering city.

I have already been starting to recruit others to come, and I will be back!



Posted May 11, 2008 by NOLA-er in Katrina Recovery

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