Update: Paper Cranes are Pouring In


Students Rebuild organizers are reporting that the paper cranes for Japan are now arriving by the boxfuls to their offices in Seattle. As of this writing, they have collected more than 8,000 cranes, raising more than $16,000 for Japan relief!

There’s still time to contribute to the goal of collecting 100,000 cranes for a large art installation and donations totaling $200,000. The only catch: organizers only want cranes from young people up to age 25.


Rebuilding New Orleans: From Homes to Entire Neighborhoods


Editor’s Note: All week long I’ve posted stories about people and organizations that are helping to rebuild New Orleans. Posts on Monday and Tuesday looked at a California church that sends a work group to the city every winter. Wednesday was about a family that takes the trips every year. Yesterday I started a story about Project Homecoming. Today is part two of the story.

NEW ORLEANS –  Project Homecoming was born in 2007 after it became apparent that many homeowners whose homes were destroyed after Hurricane Katrian were struggling to rebuild. Elderly, disabled and the poor were especially at a disadvantage. Many had received monies to rebuild from insurance or the government, only to have those funds stolen by unscrupulous contractors.

A volunteer from California works on a the North Rampart house being rebuilt by Project Homecoming.

A number of churches in the Presbytery of South Louisiana, along with the national Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, partnered together to create Project Homecoming to help those homeowners who were disadvantaged. Since that time the group has utilized nearly 10,000 volunteers from around the country to rebuild more than 125 homes.

Now five and a half years since Katrina, the organization is re-gauging its focus, to include not only helping individual homeowners, but also entire neighborhoods.

In the fall of last year, the organization started construction on its first house without a homeowner. The more than 120-year-old house on North Rampart Street in the Lower Ninth Ward was donated by an overwhelmed owner who had inherited the property – along with blight liens, taxes, and looming construction costs.

“It was in worse than zero shape,” said Construction Manager Noelle Marinello. Twelve feet of water invaded the house when the levees broke after Katrina; a large hole in the roof from wind damage had let in five years of rain, wind, and pests.

The home on North Rampart Street that Project Homecoming is rebuilding with the help of volunteers.

Teams of volunteers have rotated in every week to clear out the once overgrown lot and completely rebuild the classic New Orleans shotgun house structure.

Public Relations and Marketing Director Vann Joines said the home will be priced to make it accessible for a low-income family, without negatively affecting home prices in the surrounding neighborhood. Low-income is defined as making 80 percent or less of the area’s median income. One report puts the city’s median income for a family of four at $66,000 a year.

The North Rampart Street house is in essence a test case for Project Homecoming, as it prepares to tackle rebuilding efforts through a city grant of $500,000 the group was awarded. The organization will be using the money to purchase 13 lots from the state, which acquired the properties in a buy-out program after the disaster. Officials plan to build 11 new homes and rehabilitate two existing homes over the next two years.

The 3-bedroom, 2-bath 1,200-square-foot homes will be energy efficient using green building materials, Joines said. The houses will be raised high enough to escape future flooding, and be able to withstand hurricane-force winds. And Project Homecoming will work with neighborhood associations to ensure that each home fits the architectural character of the community.

Each home is expected to cost between $190,000 and $200,000 to build, but will be sold for approximately $150,000. Project Homecoming officials, working in partnership with other nonprofits, will help low-income homebuyers secure mortgages of between $85,000 and $90,000, as well as “soft second” grants to cover the remaining cost.

Qualified homebuyers will also be counseled and trained in how to save money and manage finances so they can meet future mortgage, tax and maintenance responsibilities.

Executive Director Jean Marie Peacock said other “holistic” efforts to help neighborhoods Project Homecoming is undertaking include partnering with neighborhood associations and other agencies to build community gardens, clear lots, and identify blighted properties for future rehabilitation. They are working with one school to teach students about urban farming.

As volunteers preparing for a new week of work were told recently by Operations Director Kevin Krejci: “We are here for the long term to make sure that community-wide recovery happens.”

For more information about Project Homecoming and how to help, go to http://projecthomecoming.net. Or call the toll free number: (877) 942-0444.

Next: One man’s story of survival.

Project Homecoming Commits to Long-term Rebuilding of New Orleans


Editor’s Note: This week I’m sharing stories about people and organizations who have helped New Orleans rebuild since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Monday and Tuesday we looked at a California church that sends a group of volunteers every winter. Wednesday we saw a family from that church that spends their vacation on the annual trips. Today’s post is about the organization that the church group works through, Project Homecoming.

NEW ORLEANS – More than five years after Hurricane Katrina, a number of rebuilding organizations have shuttered operations and moved on, despite the fact that this city still has nearly 50,000 blighted homes and numerous near-empty neighborhoods.

For one organization, there’s still more work to do.

Project Homecoming has helped struggling homeowners rebuild more than 125 homes since its creation in 2007 as a ministry of the Presbytery of South Louisiana and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA). As efforts to rebuild New Orleans continue and needs shift, Project Homecoming is going through a sort of rebirth, as it transitions to its own 501c3 nonprofit by the end of this year.

Volunteers from a Presbyterian church in Pennsylvania strip paint on a Project Homecoming work site in the Lower Ninth Ward.

“There’s a lot of faith-based groups that have left New Orleans; Presbyterians are some of the ones that remain because of PDA’s planning for a long-term commitment,” said Executive Director Jean Marie Peacock. “We’re thankful for the financial support they provided and the partnership that initiated Project Homecoming’s commitment to the long-term recovery in New Orleans.”

The PDA is now transitioning out of the Gulf, after more than five years of helping to rebuild communities in states all along the coast. It closed the last of its volunteer villages recently, but it remains involved in rebuilding efforts through a $500,000 grant it awarded to Project Homecoming for 2011.

Knowing that PDA would wind down efforts one day, Project Homecoming took steps toward continuing in New Orleans. One of the steps: seeking and winning a $500,000 grant from the city and acquiring a contractor’s license to tackle major blight through building and selling new homes to low-income families.

“It’s really an extension of what we have been doing with hurricane recovery,” Peacock said. “We’ll still continue to work with individuals, but we’re now branching into recovery work of neighborhoods.”

At the time Project Homecoming came together as a partnership of South Louisiana churches, the focus was on helping low-income, elderly and disabled homeowners lacking enough funds to rebuild after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Many of its clients were previously taken advantage of by unscrupulous contractors, leaving them unable to finance further reconstruction.

Then and now, Project Homecoming case managers help clients navigate the rebuilding process, while construction and onsite managers marshal teams of volunteers to do construction on the homes at about a third of the cost of using contractors. Volunteers do everything minus plumbing, electrical, and heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems; the organization hires trusted licensed professionals for that work.

Most of the nearly 10,000 volunteers who have worked through Project Homecoming over the years have come from Presbyterian churches all over the country. Director of Public Relations and Marketing Vann Joines said 2010 was the organization’s biggest volunteer year ever; they experienced a 15 percent increase in volunteers over 2009.

Tomorrow: How Project Homecoming will help revitalize neighborhoods through building new homes for low-income families.

Family Spends Annual Vacations in New Orleans – Volunteering


Editor’s Note: This week I’m featuring stories about people and organizations that are still working to rebuild New Orleans more than five years after Hurricane Katrina. See the entries from Monday and Tuesday, which detailed how a congregation from St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Pacifica, CA., has made a commitment to help rebuild New Orleans through annual work trips. Today is the story of one family from that church.

NEW ORLEANS – Berni Schuhmann’s family comes to this city every single winter, but they aren’t sightseeing or living it up at Mardi Gras. This family rolls up their sleeves to work.

Schuhmann, her two grown children, Aron and Gillian, her sister Taryn, and her sister’s boyfriend, Dave Bier, make the annual trek to New Orleans to help rebuild homes devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

From left to right: Berni Schuhmann, her sister Taryn Tewksbury, Taryn's boyfriend, Dave Bier, Berni's son Aron, and daughter Gillian Parkhurst. The family is standing in front of the home in New Orleans they worked on as volunteers in February, 2011.

The tradition started four years ago in 2007 when Schuhmann traveled with her church, St. Andrew Presbyterian of Pacifica, CA., to Louisiana for a mission trip with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

The trip left a deep impression on Schuhmann and her fellow church members, who all agreed they needed to return the following year. They also agreed they needed to invite others to come help. Schuhmann asked her family.

Her sister, Taryn Tewksbury of Tuscon, AZ., said Schuhmann was clearly passionate in her desire to return the next year to help rebuild in New Orleans.

“You don’t say no to her,” Tewksbury joked. “She’s little but she runs everything.”

Schuhmann was successful in convincing Tewksbury, son Aron, and daughter Gillian Parkhurst to come the following year. Both Schuhmann and Parkhurst are teachers in the San Francisco Bay Area; they give up winter recess for the work trips. The family has come every winter since, except Aron who missed last year due to business.

Schuhmann’s husband, Scott, has not been on the trips due to his work schedule in college athletics, she said. He cheers the rest of the family on: one Christmas he gave his wife and kids their own sets of coveralls to wear on the work trips. They were thrilled to receive them.

Aron Schuhmann said for him the trips are a way to connect with his family, since he lives in Southern California working in online advertising. It’s his only vacation of the year.

“It’s a good opportunity to spend a lot of time together,” he said.

Last month marked the family’s fourth trip to New Orleans together. They celebrated Aron’s 27th birthday during the week working on a home in the Lower Ninth Ward being rebuilt by the organization, Project Homecoming.

Tewskbury said she was a little scared before her first trip to New Orleans, because she didn’t know what to expect.

“Immediately when we got here the first year we were shocked at how much needed to be done,” she said. The rebuilding work and getting to know the homeowner of the house they were working on proved to be meaningful experience, however. And since that first trip she said the family and their fellow volunteers from St. Andrew, “totally fell in love with New Orleans.”

Tewksbury found another love in New Orleans on one of the work trips: her boyfriend Dave Bier. He had come from Pacifica with the church; Tewksbury came from Tuscon. They fell in love and managed a long-distance relationship, until Bier moved to Arizona.

Tomorrow: Project Homecoming commits to long-term recovery of New Orleans.


California Church Opens Arms to New Orleans – and New Friends


Editor’s Note: Yesterday I started a multi-part series based on my visit to New Orleans last month to see rebuilding efforts more than five years after Hurricane Katrina. I profiled St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Pacifica, CA., which sends a work group down every winter to help rebuilding efforts through a group called Project Homecoming. Today I continue the profile, highlighting how by reaching out to New Orleans, church members are reaching out to new friends in their own local area.

NEW ORLEANS – When members of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Pacifica, CA., started heading to the Gulf Coast every winter to help rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina, they were so passionate about their visits, that passion became infectious.

Subcontractor Paul Wayne handles a door that Pastoral Associate Ellen Rankin, of Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, is about to paint.

Five years after the annual trips started, the work groups that go down include friends, family, people from other churches and faiths – even people who don’t go to church. And even those who can’t come with the work groups participate by either donating to the cause, or getting involved in other charities in the San Francisco Bay Area where they are located.

“It’s nice St. Andrew collects people and brings them along,” said Ann Mason on last month’s trip. She attends the Unitarian Universalists Church in San Mateo. After talking up the New Orleans trips at her own church, the congregation is sending a youth group to work here in June.

Pacfica drywall subcontractor Paul Wayne has come back multiple times after hearing about the trips from a St. Andrew member at a party. He’s Jewish, but he said it makes no matter. He enjoys working with his St. Andrew friends year after year.

Wayne is one of many Bay Area contractors who now spend their annual vacations with the St. Andrew church group. He and another contractor on last month’s trip, Mark Huff, who attends Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, said they recognized on their first visits how needed skilled workers were in New Orleans.

In addition to having collected a loyal band of contractors, the church group has found friends and co-workers who can’t go on the trips, but gladly donate money to make the annual trips a reality, or to directly help out those in need in New Orleans.

In fact, two elementary school teachers who go on the trips during winter break raise money from their students at Peninsula schools.

Diane Goldman said she started collecting “Change for Change” from her school in Menlo Park. This year students and parents donated $700; Goldman chipped in some to purchase an $850 Home Depot card that she brought with her to give away to a family helped by Project Homecoming.

Fifth grade teacher Gillian Parkhurst from Menlo Park took a cue from Goldman and did her own spare change drive with students. She found a fifth grade class in New Orleans that her students became pen pals with, and have even spoken with on Skype. She was able to visit the New Orleans pen pals during the February work trip.

Reaching out and becoming more connected to the people of New Orleans has inspired the St. Andrew congregation to become more connected to its own community along the way, church members said.

One of the trip organizers, Half Moon Bay resident Berni Schuhmann, said she believes St. Andrew is more of a “doing church” in the Pacifica area since the trips started. She and fellow trip leader Lisa Angelot said church members who can’t make the annual trek are getting involved in local efforts such as Rebuilding Together and Relay for Life.

“It’s been really good for our church…this mission stuff, it just seems to open the door to more,” said Angelot.

Tomorrow: Annual New Orleans work trips are a family affair.

This story is featured in the  Good Neighbor Stories 2013 Datebook! Start every day feeling good about the world!

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Five Years Out From Another Major Disaster: Good Neighbors Still at Work in New Orleans


Editor’s Note: Last month I spent several days in New Orleans and got to see some of the on-going rebuilding efforts more than five years after Hurricane Katrina. Each day this week I’m featuring stories of  people and organizations that are working together to help restore homes and lives. After the massive destruction in Japan last week, these stories point to the need for long-term commitments to help damaged regions rebuild, and give hope to the people there.

Volunteers from St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Pacifica, CA. strip paint for a home being reconstructed in the Lower Ninth Ward

NEW ORLEANS – As the crisis in Japan unfolds and it becomes apparent that recovery will require long-term, international help, one San Francisco Bay Area church knows what it’s like to adopt a people far away and commit to helping rebuild after a disaster.

In 2005, Pacfica, CA., resident and St. Andrew Presbyterian Church member Lisa Angelot was so moved by television images of the destruction in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, she was there within 10 weeks to volunteer. She gutted out flood-damaged homes with a group from Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church.

She came back to her church family at St. Andrew filled with stories about the massive needs on the Gulf Coast after suffering through Katrina and Hurricane Rita. The 200-member Pacifica congregation was inspired to send a group to the region as volunteers with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

The church group made its first trip in the winter of 2007 to Houma, LA. A field trip to New Orleans that week got them thinking about returning in 2008 to help there. The church has sponsored a group every year to New Orleans since, working in conjunction with a Presbyterian organization called Project Homecoming.

I happened to be in New Orleans at the start of the church’s fourth work trip, and got to tag along as more than 20 Bay Area volunteers worked at a few different locations in the city.

During a break at a house in the Lower Ninth Ward where part of the group had been hard at work with saws, drills and paint scrapers, we heard birds singing in the trees, which prompted Angelot to remember that on her first trip to New Orleans, there were no birds.

“All you heard were helicopters,” she said. There was destruction everywhere, no residents, just volunteers gutting houses and National Guardsmen patrolling the neighborhoods.

Five and a half years later, she said it’s heartening to see how far the city has come, but sobering to realize how far the city still needs to go. Officials estimate that nearly 50,000 housing units out of 200,000 are blighted. It’s not unusual to see entire neighborhoods still wiped out, or blocks with only one house reoccupied.

The fact that there is so much left to do – some estimates say it will take another five to 10 years to repair the hurricane and flood damage – keeps the Pacfica church group coming back year after year.

Along the way the church members have fallen in love with the city and its people.

“Our people have just been captivated by individual stories…and the story of the city,” said Pastor Penny Newall. “It’s been more than just going down and working for a week. It’s been a connection and a passion that is much deeper for many of the people who have gone.”

Tomorrow: How members of the St. Andrew work team have brought others along with them to help in New Orleans.

St. Andrew member Berni Schuhmann holds up a mini-King Cake she bought at lunchtime, during a break from working on a house in New Orlean's Lower Ninth Ward. Schuhmann's daughter Gillian Parkhurst looks on.

Peace Cranes for Japan


The other day in my local paper there was a lovely small story about a Stanford student named Robin Thomas who set up a table for his fellow students to help him fold 1,000 origami peace cranes for Japan. In Japanese legend, anyone who folds 1,000 cranes will be granted a wish by a crane for things like a long life, or recovery from illness or injury. Thomas encourages students to write prayers or well wishes on each piece of paper before folding.

"Peace Cranes"Being an origami fan myself, I was so struck by the idea of folding the cranes as a way of praying for, or sending good wishes to the Japanese people, I got out my stash of origami paper and struggled through instructions to make my own cranes. I also thought wouldn’t it be great to ask people online to fold their own cranes and then post pictures of them. We could do a virtual collection of 1,000 cranes for Japan.

As I started doing research on peace cranes, lo and behold someone was already on the case of the virtual crane collection. Dosomething.org started “Paper Cranes for Japan” on Facebook on March 11. Since the Causes creation started just a week ago, nearly 6,800 people have “liked” the page, and more than 1,200 photos have been posted.

I had also wondered how someone could connect fundraising to the origami cranes, and it turns out someone figured that out, too. Two groups, Architecture for Humanity and Students Rebuild, noticed the Facebook page and decided to issue a challenge to young people to fold cranes and send them in, with the Bezos Family Foundation pledging $2 for Japan relief for every crane mailed. The goal is to collect 100,000 cranes that will be incorporated into a major art installation.

Folding the cranes is not the easiest of origami creations, but I found if I stuck with it eventually I could do it. There are numerous places online to learn how to fold the cranes. Paper Cranes for Japan has links to instructions. The two places I found that helped me were a UK website called Origami.org.uk, and a YouTube video, “How to Make a Paper Crane (Tsuru)”. The origami site has a 3-D image of the folding process, and you can easily stop the image, or go back over steps (and over and over, like I did). I also had to watch the YouTube video multiple times. But as you can see from the photo, my persistence and patience paid off.

What a great project this would be for (older) kids. It’s a wonderful group project, and one that could be done anywhere with almost any paper. Students Rebuild will even send you a pre-paid shipping label for large boxes if you send an e-mail.

UPDATE: Students Rebuild tells me that they only want paper cranes from people age 25 and YOUNGER. I asked if they would take cranes from the “young at heart”, sadly no. For us older folks, post photos of your cranes at the Paper Cranes for Japan Facebook page.

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Helping the Japanese People in the Wake of Deadly Earthquake, Tsunami


I feel as if I’ve been holding my breath for the last few days since the largest earthquake in Japan’s history hit that country a few days ago. Mostly because the disaster continues to unfold, from quake, to tsunami, to possible nuclear plant meltdowns, with an end somewhere off in the distance.

As we continue to watch and wait to see what happens with our Japanese brothers and sisters, we can help with even the smallest of donations. Here are some sources I trust:

In today’s world of texting, it’s popular – and easy – to suggest texting to an organization like the Red Cross. But I was surprised to learn that the money doesn’t necessarily get to the organization right away. According to a great blog post on the PC World site, it can sometimes take as long as 30 to 60 days for the funds to reach their destinations. If you want to make sure your donation gets to the organization right away, online donating may be your best bet.

The PC World post has some good advice about how not to get scammed when donating to help after a major disaster. It also suggests checking out charitywatch.org; that site has an excellent overview of charities that they trust for helping after disasters.

Here is a video from the Red Cross taken in Japan.