From February 7 thru 10th, three members of Bridge To Biloxi’s core team, Peter Hilton, John Page, and Richard Pasley toured the Gulf Coast to assess current needs and find new opportunities for our expanding efforts. The idea is to provide a wide range of opportunities for our volunteers, both in activity and schedule, and yet to be able to fill service teams and to accomplish this by pooling opportunities amongst the Eastern Massachusetts volunteer groups.
With this in mind, we first visited a site in Gulfport managed by YouthBuild – part of a national organization that received a one year grant to rebuild homes in Gulfport using YouthBuild graduates. The project manager, Tony, was exceptional. There are real possibilities of synergy with this organization – our volunteers working with underprivileged youth working to develop professional skills while serving the needs of the least privileged. Unfortunately, YouthBuild needs to limit participants to Youth Build graduates. However, this particular group in Gulfport group considers becoming an independent, non-profit home rebuilder after its grant finishes in July and we may be able to work with them subsequently. In the meantime, we need to keep in touch with them.
YouthBuild project in Gulfport
Traveling west, we next visited Kathleen Johnson, a one person dynamo in Waveland, who is housing volunteers, taking in cases and completing 3 homes a week. She is tough and just what Waveland, one of the hardest hit towns on the Gulf, needs. She provided impassioned commentary on many of the underlying issues that afflict the Gulf Coast, and her assessment of the pace of recovery efforts was indeed sobering. The frustrations caused by bureaucracies and special interests are clearly bogging down the efforts of those who want nothing more than to help so many in need.
Kathleen Johnson in Waveland
We went on to the Hancock County Case Roundtable where case workers bring in cases, requesting that the county can partially fund them and volunteer groups implement them (rebuild the homes). The requirements to get a case accepted are onerous and few cases are being submitted. We recommend steering clear of this process.
Turkey Creek is the name of a region within Gulfport that has an important history as a community created by freed slaves. It suffered Katrina related damage along with other communities. Hands On Gulf Coast and others are helping repair the community. Most recently, Turkey Creek has acquired facilities to house its own volunteers and is beginning to become directly involved in its own repair. Unfortunately, we only had the opportunity to visit their facility for housing volunteers and it was just OK. I understand the leader, Derek Evans, is excellent. Richard and John have met him and I look forward to meeting him but my impression from what I saw of the Turkey Creek program was less appealing than I had hoped for. More research is needed before we commit to working with them.
We had a very full day on Friday, February 9, moving further west. We left HOGC in Biloxi at 6 AM for a 7:30 meeting in Slidell, near New Orleans. We met a young Creole lawyer, Colette Pichon Battle, who runs a small “brown led” program, helping her people (300 families) rebuild their homes. Volunteers can stay with the families and learn a different culture while helping these families – it is very appealing to me. Further, Colette, as a lawyer, can and is willing to guide advocacy work that we might carry out. By the way, Colette spoke on the mall in DC at the last anti-escalation rally. If you Google her, you can easily find her speech. Colette is one of the most amazing people we have met on the gulf coast and it would be an honor to work with her.
Next we went to New Orleans to Catholic Charities – they are doing lots of good work but are too bureaucratic for us. Then we visited a small, brown-led group in the ninth ward call NENA (Neighborhood Emergency Network Assoc) – a place that really needs help and where our volunteers can make an immediate difference. We also visited Emergency Communities, an organization whose primary function is to feed people in need and also provide meals for volunteers. Emergency Communities also does home rebuilding in New Orleans and on the delta that protrudes south from New Orleans into the gulf.
We continued on to the UUA operations in New Orleans. The UUA uses a church that had been damaged by flooding during Katrina and now houses volunteers. The UUA creates a very warm place which takes in youth volunteers and provides a context for the work, dealing with poverty and racism.
On our way back to our home site, HOGC, we stopped in at Back Bay Mission. They are doing much better than when we saw them a year ago and expecting to move into their repaired building within a few weeks. They also have put prefab housing up to house volunteers at their site and just recently arranged to get some additional space to house more volunteers. They will be able to take volunteer teams, beginning in August and they now do home repair etc. Back Bay Mission is a good place to recommend for youth teams.
Finally (for Friday, anyway), we went on to D’Iberville where they are doing an incredible job of rebuilding homes, but this is too structured an environment for us. Then it was back to HOGC for another 1 hour meeting…wow,what a long day…
Beside our road trip, we also spent time with HOGC reviewing our work together on Cynthia’s house. Our goal was to identify things we could improve on our next joint project. Areas that we identified as needing improvement included finishing on time and better coordination between the B2B and HOGC.
We discussed a model by which HOGC would provide the project leader and would put our house into their house building stream. We would fund it and provide a lot of the volunteer effort but we would work more closely with HOGC. They would add volunteers as needed and provide other opportunities for our volunteers when we have more than we need or some who want other experiences. We would collaborate more fully in advance of volunteer trips on what the volunteers will do and what training we should give them. Our project would be signed as B2B and HOGC and we would jointly communicate about it. It looks as though our next house project will begin in April.
We also agreed that HOGC will make special rules for youth from B2B. We can bring youth who are 16 years or older, with a ratio of 1 chaperon for 3 youths, in groups of 16 or less (unless agreed upon in advance).
Finally, the best for last. On Saturday morning we spent several hours with Cynthia, Dan, and their two youngest children in the house B2B worked so hard to help them rebuild. They were excited to be in their home, effusive in expressing their appreciation, and charming. Cynthia told us “we would’t have a home if it weren’t for B2B”. We are exceptionally fortunate to be able to impact the life of a family in such a positive way and to have the family recognize and appreciate what we did. We should all feel proud and honored to have been part of this great success!
Cynthia in front of her lifelong home