Sunday, May 20, 2007

Habitat for Humanity Rebuilds the Gulf Coast

Hello everyone!

What has Kayleigh been up to for the last week? Read on for a long, detailed description.

A little background: In 2000, I traveled with 9 other students from Gettysburg College to Cajamarca, Peru for two weeks. We lived with families in a small village and started construction on what is now a free health care clinic. When I returned, I encouraged my family to do something similar. Dreambuilders is an interfaith organization started by my father in 2001 at a tiny church in Maryland as a way to get their youth to give back to the community. That first year, ten teenagers and three adults spent a week in West Virginia working with Habitat for Humanity. The following year, they returned to West Virginia with 40 people, and the year after that with 50. In 2004, 50 people from St. Marks Episcopal Church, 80% of them high school students, spent a week in Albuquerque New Mexico with Habitat. Last year, the number was up to 75, and included people from two other churches, and from the Jewish community of Temple Isaiah. Dreambuilders focuses on what is called "blitz builds," where an entire house is built in a week to two weeks, from foundation to finished product.

Habitat for Humanity is a non-profit Christian organization that helps build homes for low-income families throughout the world. Habitat homeowners are selected on a needs-basis, and pay only for the cost of materials, all labor is volunteer donations. The homeowners are given a 30 year, interest free mortgage through Habitat, and are also required to give 350 "sweat equity" hours, meaning they work with the volunteers in the construction of their homes. All appliances are donated by Whirlpool. The Gulf Coast Habitat for Humanity has added an additional requirement to qualifying for a home: you must have been affected by Katrina in some way. Prior to September 2005, Mississippi Habitat was building 2 homes per year. They are now building more than 20 homes per month.

This year, Dreambuilders will be working with Habitat in three different locations - a house was gutted and renovated in Howard County, Maryland, this past April. 120 volunteers will be spending two weeks in Albuquerque next month blitz building three houses. And last week 48 of us worked on two dozen houses in Biloxi, Mississippi with Habitat for Humanity, Gulf Coast. Again, participants included people from three episcopal churches, one synagogue, and I am agnostic with pagan tendencies on an optimistic day, and completely athiest the rest of the time. While Habitat is a Christian organization, you don't have to be a Christian to volunteer. Next year, Dreambuilders will be returning to the Gulf Coast, to New Mexico, and traveling to Panama City. We will be adding to our ranks a group of Muslim volunteers from a community in Washington, DC. Our goal is to have 500 people ready, willing, and able to go anywhere in the world at any time.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, Dreambuilders wanted to go and help. But it wasn't until this year that they had the infrastructure to support a group of our size. Before houses could be built, the debris had to be cleared away, and only now, 21 months after the storm, are they at the point where that is possible.

Four days before Katrina, the Salvation Army purchased an old high school football stadium in downtown Biloxi, with the intention of transforming it into a youth sports camp/program. After the storm, it was first a shelter for victims, and now serves as "base camp" for volunteers working with both the Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity. Bunk houses were constructed on the field, and the bleachers enclosed and air conditioned. The picture below is of my sister, Kelly, in front of our bunk house, which housed 20 female volunteers, with two toilets and two showers. Dreambuilders weren't the only volunteers there. I had the opportunity this past week to work with Chip Carter, the son of former president Jimmy Carter. Keep in mind I was born after Jimmy Carter left office, so I am not too hip on his political history, but Chip was extremely nice (albeit a bit strange), and a lot of fun.

So many things have happened since September of 2005 that the world seems to have forgotten the Gulf. Things are not back to normal there. Thousands of people are still without houses. While the debris has been cleared away, the destruction remains, and the devastation is indescribable. I'm not sure I can adequately put into words what it's like to walk and drive through miles of abandoned buildings, crumbling walls, empty lots...but, being a writer, I have to try.

Wednesday evening, we drove to New Orleans. We passed miles and miles of devastation. An abandoned Walmart building stood like an eerie sentinel at the outskirts of the city, an empty shell where people once were, and now, simply...aren't. A house, with jagged tears in the brick walls, and "HELP US" written in bold white letters on the roof, where people were stranded in the rising water for god only knows how long. An Olive Garden restaurant sign, hanging crooked from a bent metal pole in front of a slab of concrete where the restaurant once was, and is no longer. The swell from the gulf in Biloxi was 30 feet high, with waves 15 feet tall on top of that. "When we evacuated, I took three changes of clothes and a book," one woman told me. "I expected to come home to a debris filled yard, and perhaps some roof damage. Maybe I'd lose the top floor of my house. I came home to a slab of concrete, and nothing else. My entire house was gone. Everything was gone."

I spoke with a man in a small shop on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. "I was living in a three bedroom apartment with my wife and three daughters. We were evacuated, and lost everything. I spent the next year living in a one bedroom apartment in Mississippi with a friend of mine, his wife and two children." When I told him I was there with Habitat, he wanted to give me my purchases for free. I wouldn't let him; he lost everything, I had lost nothing.

Once you get into downtown New Orleans, it's business as usual. Bourbon street is as crazy and alive as it's always been. But go three blocks off the beaten path, and you find entire streets of boarded up buildings, piles of brick, fractured buildings.

Tolouse Street

Decatur Street in the French Quarter

This one is for Katrina Strauss; I thought of her when I saw it!

Jackson Square

Our group was divided into three work teams, and each team was sent to a different area of the Biloxi region to work. My father, mother, sister, aunt, and I were part of a 15-person team working in the town of Gautier, in a neighborhood called Hickory Hills. Habitat currently has 12 homes in construction in Hickory Hills in various stages of construction. Each home has three bedrooms, one full and one half bath. We did not blitz build this trip. Six of the homes were nearly completed and required "punch list" items, such as painting, laying trim, installing closets and doorknobs, etc. to prepare for inspection. Throughout the course of the week, we obtained Certifications of Occupancy for all six homes. We closed and locked their doors on Friday afternoon; the next people to open them will be their owners.

We also worked on the other houses, which were less finished. We installed insulation, installed doors, and installed roofs. Yes, I was on a roof laying shingles. There are pictures of it out there, and I will post them as proof as soon as they've been sent to me. For now, you can see the houses we worked on. Hickory Hills is not in the flood plain, which is another goal of Habitat's: to not only provide homes for the victims, but to place them in locations where they won't be destroyed again.


H.S. Kinn said...

I have a picture that my grandpa carved of Jackson Square. *sniff* I don't know how I feel about going back to NOLA. I think I'd cry.

Skyler Grey said...

All I can say Kay, is wow! What a wonderful thing and thank GOD for families and people like you and yours. I'm reading and looking at these pictures in tears. What a blessing to know that there are those out there that are loving and selfless enough to give at times like this.
*HUGE hugs, kisses & tears*

Sabrina Luna said...

Thank goddess for wonderful people like you, KJ! HUGS!!!! :)

Anonymous said...

Kay, the world needs more people like you and your family. I am in awe of what you and others accomplished in such a short period of time, but even more in awe of your selflessness and willingness to reach out to others.

Some may call your actions Christian-like; others may call it something else. I call it nothing less than amazing.

Thank you for sharing yourself to the people of NOLA, and for sharing your experience with us. You're truly inspiring.


tq_kimber said...

With your permission I'd like to post the link to this on my blogs. I think it's important that people know about the work Habitat does and that the areas hit by Katrina are still very much in need of help.