Kathleen Johnson is the head of Katrina Relief in Waveland, Mississippi. She came down shortly after the hurricane and has stayed. She is a crusader on a mission to build houses, but also to build lives and community. It took a couple of days for me to realize that with Kathleen, all progress results from human contact. While the goal might be to paint a wall or clear a lot, it all begins with attaching that action to a human being. Habitat for Humanity emphasizes this as well, but for the volunteer to share in this kind of experience is rare. Things are quite different in Waveland.
There, Kathleen encourages volunteers to meet and talk to clients. This gives volunteers a chance to humanize their tasks and learn, while giving clients a chance to share their experiences and blow off some steam. And as the week wore on, you could see the recognition in the students’ faces. It wasn’t just a house; it was so-and-so’s house. It wasn’t just a pile of trash, or brush to clear, or pipes to wrap. These are all efforts geared to provide the residents of Hancock County with decent, affordable housing, one conversation and one smile at a time.
We saw this in the work at WQRZ and in efforts to clear lots to make way a new home. I saw this connection drive student volunteers into a tangle of brush, briers, and trees in Pearlington for the better part of two days. They knew that the owner had received a grant to receive a MEMA home – to be delivered early next week. The MEMA home is Mississippi’s inspired improvement on the FEMA trailer. These homes are still portable, but their design is based on the ubiquitous “shotgun” houses. They look more permanent and do not stick out so much among existing homes.
By mid afternoon on Thursday, about 80% of the lot was clear down to stumps, but after four days of physical labor, we started running out of gas. The leaders wisely decided that you didn’t want an exhausted crew swinging axes and wielding chain saws. What began as an impenetrable mess was a few hours of additional clearing and a stump grinder away from welcoming a new home and the students knew that.
After showers, which in a house with nearly 50 residents is a job itself, and some dinner, the students headed into New Orleans for one last time. Unfortunately, with 12,000 student volunteers in the New Orleans area, the line at Preservation Hall was a block long. A number of us were in line an hour in advance and still missed the first set. I gave my students a dispensation from the concert, thus providing them with a little extra time for souvenir shopping, beignets at Café du Monde, and dancing on Bourbon Street. One group did go back later and caught the third and final set.
About a dozen of us walked over to Howlin’ Wolf, a music club in the Warehouse District (near the Convention Center), to see the Rebirth Brass Band. They are arguably the best of the New Orleans brass bands. They came on over an hour late, which is typical here. Shortly after 11:30pm, Rebirth hit the stage and they were, in their own words, “on fire.” With their tuba and drum driven brass, infused with funk and hip-hop, they had the crown moving instantly. The first set included such standards as “Tuba Luba” and “I Feel Like Funkin’ It Up.” Needless to say, it was well worth the wait, even with the late trip up I-10 to Waveland.