Remembering Katrina – From Afar (Part 2 of 2)


Despite living more than 1,000 miles away from the Gulf Coast, I feel linked to that region. There was something about Hurricane Katrina and the events that followed that gripped me and pulled me in. Since then, I have visited the Gulf Coast twice – once to Mississippi, and once to New Orleans. My son, Alex, now lives there, working the last two years to help rebuild homes, first through the Presbyterian Church (USA), and now through Americorps (although still with a PCUSA-sponsored organization, Project Homecoming).

In Part 1 I wrote about my memories of the storm itself, and my trip to Mississippi in 2006. Today is about my family’s trip to New Orleans in 2009.

When I left Mississippi at the end of a one-week service trip in August, 2006, I had those fleeting, crazy, “what if?” kinds of thoughts about how to remain so I could help with the rebuilding efforts.  Or maybe I could come back? But after a few weeks of initial restlessness upon my return home, the reality of day-to-day life set in and I set those “what if” ideas aside.  I did not forget the people of the Gulf Coast, however.

Within two years, the region would be once again front and center in my life. It turns out our son Alex had been deeply affected by the storm coverage, as well. Though still in college, he had an idea that one day he would move there to help rebuilding efforts. He graduated in June, 2008, and two months later he was headed for New Orleans as a Young Adult Volunteer with the Presbyterian Church (USA).

It turned out he was headed right into Hurricane Gustav. He arrived in New Orleans just in time to be evacuated out of the city. Fortunately, Gustav did not pack the same punch as Katrina three years previously.

Since that time, Alex has personally overseen the rebuilding of 7 homes, working with more than 1,000 volunteers in the process.

We visited Alex in March, 2009, to see first-hand the work he had been doing. On our first full day he took us on the tour he has taken many volunteers on through the city, pointing out places affected by the storm and flooding. As we headed over the Industrial Canal on the Claiborne Avenue Bridge, Alex told us to look to the right of the bridge. We saw neighborhoods just on the other side of the canal. Then at just the right moment, Alex said, “Look to the left.”

Turning our heads, we saw what looked like a wasteland. It was what was left of The Lower Ninth Ward. There were specks of life here and there, but mostly there were hundreds of empty lots, with only sets of concrete steps marking where homes once stood. I thought back to two years earlier, when I first saw the devastation first-hand in Mississippi.

As Alex drove us around he explained how the disaster had unfolded. He detailed the environmental degradation and human errors that had contributed to the tragic events, how residents nearly lost the ability to return and rebuild to the neighborhood due to political maneuvering and greed, and how insurance companies had stacked the deck against people collecting monies. He also talked about how residents were being thwarted from returning to the city either through governmental rules or lack of resources.

I felt my anger from three years earlier returning. While remembering the shock I felt watching the calamity on TV in 2005, I was taken aback that residents were still lacking the help they needed to rebuild and return. I was very quiet through the rest of the tour.

On Monday morning we found ourselves in a church fellowship hall with about 100 other volunteers from all over the country for an orientation. Afterwards we were divided into teams for each home rebuilding site. Our family headed to the site Alex was supervising. For the next few days we painted, caulked, laid floor tiles and helped with general clean up. At night Alex took us to more sites around the city, making sure we experienced the classics of New Orleans’ cuisine, music and culture.

By the end of the week, I was in love with the city and its people. We got to talk with the homeowners of the house we were rebuilding. We spoke to other natives of the city and region. We got to see parades, outdoor markets, classic old neighborhoods, and local nature. From our experiences it seemed that this was a place that celebrated life with gusto in the face of death.

The anger I had felt just a few days before was not gone, but I realized that the anecdote to that anger was turning that anger into action, like the rebuilding efforts. These efforts were not just rebuilding physical buildings, they were – and are – rebuilding people’s lives. And throughout the rebuilding, we can, and should, embrace and celebrate life, just as generations of New Orleans and Gulf Coast residents have done.

Five years after Hurricane Katrina there is still more left to accomplish. Organizations like Project Homecoming are helping uninsured, under-insured, disabled and elderly homeowners rebuild their homes, even five years later. It very well could be another five years before the remaining homes are rebuilt. With the BP oil spill, the region is hit with new woes, making help all the more imperative.

There is no easy ending to this story. No quick fix to New Orlean’s problems, which are extremely complicated. But we as a nation should not give up on New Orleans, or the rest of the Gulf Coast region.

You can help! Go to and donate money for Project Homecoming. This organization has rebuilt more than 120 homes in New Orleans utilizing labor from more than 8,000 volunteers from all over the country and world. There is still lots more to do, however. Money and volunteers are still needed.

If you live in the Silicon Valley, you can also help this Sunday, August 29, by eating at Roux Louisiana Kitchen, on Santana Row, in San Jose. A portion of the restaurant’s profits that day will go to Project Homecoming.

Remembering Katrina – From Afar (Part 1 of 2)


Despite living more than 1,000 miles away from the Gulf Coast, I feel linked to that region. There was something about Hurricane Katrina and the events that followed that gripped me and pulled me in. Since then, I have visited the Gulf Coast twice – once to Mississippi, and once to New Orleans. My son, Alex, now lives there, working the last two years to help rebuild homes, first through the Presbyterian Church (USA), and now through Americorps (although still with a PCUSA-sponsored organization). Sunday, August 29, is the five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

The week Katrina swirled its way through the Gulf, slamming into the coast and leaving unbelievable destruction in its wake, I was serving jury duty here in the Silicon Valley. The case was particularly gut-wrenching, involving a 32-year-old man who, in a drunken stupor,  had molested his 13-year-old female cousin and then, after sobering up, threatened to kill her if she told anyone. We eventually voted to convict the man of all charges. When I wasn’t in court, I was in front of the TV switching between news channels. It was an extremely emotional couple of weeks as I experienced intense drama almost every waking moment of every day either in court or through the TV. One day in court as we listened to a litany of what had gone wrong in the family – alcoholism, drug addiction, absentee parents, etc. – I thought, “This is this family’s Hurricane Katrina.”

As I watched the story of the aftermath of the storm day after day, I found myself yelling at the TV in frustration, “Why isn’t anyone doing anything?!” I was watching the moment Anderson Cooper took Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu to task for thanking a long list of politicians who were – finally – taking action. As if speaking for all of us, Cooper said, “Excuse me senator…for the last four days I’ve been seeing dead bodies in the streets of Mississippi, and to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other, I’ve got to tell you there are a lot of people here who are very angry and very frustrated, and when they hear politicians thanking one another, it kind of cuts them the wrong way right now.”

Katrina was – like 9/11 before it – a surreal moment in U.S. history. How, I kept asking, how, in one of the supposedly most advanced countries in the world are we letting people suffer and die? On TV? It wasn’t like we didn’t know what was going on. It was unfolding in real time in front of us. Days went by with people sitting on rooftops, as precious time ticked by and nothing seemed to be happening. Five years later, and I still can’t believe it happened. This week NBC news anchor Brian Williams told Jon Stewart in an interview on The Daily Show, “I can’t believe this was allowed to happen to our citizens.”

In August, 2006 11 months after Katrina hit, I found myself in Long Beach, MS., supporting my church’s youth mission trip. Another mom and I bought and prepared food daily for nearly 100 youth and adults. As we walked down aisles in Sam’s Club and Winn-Dixie, residents – realizing we weren’t from around there – would stop us to ask us questions. When we told them why we were visiting, they would thank us for coming to help. Some told us they felt as if the government and the rest of the country had abandoned them.

It was a sobering trip. As we drove to and from Long Beach, we would pass miles and miles of devastated neighborhoods and commercial areas. It looked, as the saying goes, like a bomb, or rather multiple bombs, had gone off. Down one stretch of Highway 90, we could see a hotel still standing, with all it’s windows blown out of one side. You could still see the beds and furniture sitting there, exposed to the elements. We saw an odd-shaped skeleton of a building, not knowing what it was all week, later learning it had been Gulfport’s aquarium. In another area, the hollow shell of St. Thomas’ Catholic Church stood across the street from the beach. In the neighborhood where our group was staying, we drove up through several blocks of properties that had experienced a 30-foot storm surge. The homes and businesses were swept away, along with some of the residents who would not or could not leave. The local elementary school had an eerie feel to it; the school doors were open, and you could see all the children’s backpacks and jackets in the hallways. We were cautioned not to go inside because of the toxic mold that had overtaken the structure.

While the devastation was staggering to look at, we saw many positive things happening in and around Long Beach. Everywhere we went, we saw hundreds of volunteers working with numerous organizations there to rebuild. Most of the organizations were churches and faith-based groups. One of the underreported stories of that time was the large number of church volunteers who helped rebuild and heal residents’ lives. Everywhere we turned, there was another church van, or a truck from a faith-based organization, full of volunteers or building supplies. One inspiring place was God’s Katrina Kitchen, started by a church days after the storm hit. The kitchen was actually a large circus tent, where volunteers were fed each day. In back was a volunteer camp, with people staying there from all over North America. Not all of them were believers; many were non-believers who just wanted to help. The kitchen was open to anyone, including local residents and homeless people who were hungry and needed the meals.

At the end of the week, I didn’t want to leave. There was so much left to be done. ‘We have life so easy back at home,’ I thought, ‘Help is needed much more here.’ I felt uneasy, and even depressed, for three weeks after returning to California, which, I learned, was a common reaction among Gulf Coast volunteers. What I didn’t know then, was that I would return to the region in just a few years.

Inside St. Thomas'

Coming in Part 2: We visit New Orleans; work still needs to be done

You can help! Go to and donate money for Project Homecoming. This organization has rebuilt more than 120 homes in New Orleans utilizing labor from more than 8,000 volunteers from all over the country and world. There is still lots more to do, however. Money and volunteers are still needed.

If you live in the Silicon Valley, you can also help this Sunday, August 29, by eating at Roux Louisiana Kitchen, on Santana Row, in San Jose. A portion of the restaurant’s profits that day will go to Project Homecoming.

You Can Help Find “Lost Ladybugs”


I love ladybugs, I always have. The ones around my area are a beautiful orange-red and black color. As a child I loved to catch them and let them crawl around on my hand. As a gardener, I love the fact they devour pesky aphids. I have even bought containers of live ladybugs from the local garden center to release into my garden to attack the offending bugs.

Recently I learned about The Lost Ladybug Project, managed by a department at Cornell University. It’s a website that enlists the public’s help in finding where ladybugs are. It seems that like honey bees, ladybug populations are decreasing in North America. Or moving. According to the site,, sometimes researchers find that groups of certain ladybug species have moved their territories. It’s not certain what effect global warming is having on ladybug populations, or if there is something else going on that would threaten their existence.

To help researchers figure out what’s happening to the ladybugs, anyone can participate by going out in the backyard or local neighborhood to count how many ladybugs are around. Zero counts as a reportable result. The site also asks that folks take pictures of any ladybugs they find to upload for researchers to review. One page of the site shows on a world map where reports have come in thus far.

It’s a very kid- and family-friendly website, although it’s meant for all ages. There are helpful pages about how to collect and count the bugs, and lesson plans for teachers, scout and 4-H leaders, homeschoolers, etc. What a great project for kids while school is still out! A kids page is still under development, but there are lots of cute photos of kids with the ladybugs.

Be a good neighbor to the ladybugs and help researchers figure out where they are!

Gathering Around a Common Table – A New Kind of Restaurant


“Eat good. Do good. Make good happen.”

That’s the slogan for a new and unique restaurant called Common Table, opening in late August, 2010, in Bend, OR. Like most restaurants, Common Table will feed hungry people, but in this case, the people will not only be paying customers, they will include those who cannot pay.

Common Table is the latest entry in the current wave of social entrepreneurship – using entrepreneurial methods to create social change – happening around the country.  The new eatery will serve breakfast and lunch to paying customers, and in turn use profits to feed hungry and homeless in Central Oregon.

“We look at the whole restaurant as a service to the community, “ said Bob Pearson, chairman of Common Table’s board of directors. “It’s a different example of how to be a community, and how to be a business.”

Common Table will feature meals created from organic, sustainable produce and meats from local farmers in a high-end setting.  The restaurant’s workers will also harvest fruits and vegetables from its own community garden plot in Bend.

The centerpiece of the restaurant will be a 20-foot long dining table topped with a solid piece of old-growth walnut, where people will be encouraged to eat in community with others, Pearson said. Smaller tables will be available throughout the 2,500-square-foot establishment.

At the center of the entire enterprise is a plan to provide meals for the hungry and homeless. Pearson said other similar restaurants around the country usually ask for people to pay what they can. At Common Table, customers will be asked to pay the suggested full menu price. The restaurant will in turn use profits to pay for free meals. He said they expect to give away about 30 percent of the meals to those in need.

To distribute the food the restaurant will primarily use a system of wooden tokens. The tokens will be given to local charities that in turn will give them to clients. Those using the tokens can either eat in the restaurant, or receive a boxed meal. Customers can also buy tokens as a tax deductable donation to give away themselves.

According to a recent report on the Oregon Food Bank website, 700,000 Oregonians received food stamps in April, 2010, or one in five residents. Oregon has experienced higher unemployment numbers than the rest of the nation, and has a higher percentage of people receiving assistance.

Pearson said community reaction to the restaurant is mostly positive, although there are some who fear it could create problems for downtown Bend.

“People who think we are going to be a restaurant serving quality, farm-to-table food are excited. People who think we’re going to be a soup kitchen are worried it will be a nuisance. We’re trying to be a new kind of thing,” Pearson said. “People will have to see it to really understand it.”

In addition to helping feed hungry in the community, the restaurant will provide paying jobs, opportunities for local culinary students to intern, and job training for employment program clients. Volunteers will help with simple jobs around the restaurant to keep costs down.

Another unique aspect of Common Table is that at night the 70-seat restaurant will become a community gathering spot. Plans include speakers, town hall meetings, films, music and other activities. Pearson said one idea is to bring together people from opposing points of view on local, national and international issues to talk – not argue – and discover what they have in common.

An explanation of the restaurant’s motto in Common Table’s brochure sums up the idea of the restaurant.

“Eat good. We eat delicious food from farmers and sources we know and trust. Do good. We impact our community through creative and collaborative service. Make good happen. We pursue social change through awareness of self, others, and the earth.”

Donations and volunteers are welcome. Go to, or call 541-408-1380 or 970-347-7457.

Mandatory Volunteering Proves Beneficial – Under Right Circumstances


When I first heard about mandatory volunteering in high schools about a decade ago I thought it was a real-life oxymoron. To me volunteering was only real when it was done out of a true desire to help, not out of a fear of missing requirements. I also cast a wary eye on teen volunteering that was done purely for puffing up college applications. I was doubtful that these types of volunteering had long-term positive effects on students. But recent studies have shown that under the right circumstances, mandatory volunteering actually improves the chances of future community involvement.

In Saturday’s “Shortcuts” column in the business section of the New York Times, columnist Alina Tugend did an interesting piece about the studies called, “The Benefits of Volunteerisim, If the Service is Real.” The studies found that when the volunteer jobs were meaningful – in other words, volunteers could see how their work was benefiting others – the volunteers were more likely to volunteer in the future. Even more so if the work was combined with a chance to talk about it with other students in class and talk about the greater societal issues involved. Those discussions can help students see that problems aren’t just solved through individual efforts, but also through public policy. That can lead to students who are more likely to vote and take part of the civic process in the future.

There is a danger to giving students just any volunteer job. One unpublished study found that engaging students in “busy work” can actually be detrimental to future volunteer involvement. So for example, if students were told they were going to be helping people, only to perform menial tasks that seem unrelated to actually helping others, that could lead to frustration and being turned off to volunteering in the future.

These results are good news for communities. It’s a win-win-win situation. Volunteering by students can help individuals who are on the receiving end, it can help the students to grow and change in positive ways, and it can help communities that will benefit from future involvement by the students as adults.