Thursday, April 26, 2007

Indelible Faces of AmeriCorps

April 20, 2007
Holiday Inn Convention Center
Austin, Tex.

Dear Family and Friends,

I apologize. This column has little about New Orleans, but much about AmeriCorps. President Clinton formed the AmeriCorps in the first-term of his administration.

Meet Bill Pride.

Retired Marine, Bill was one of the first to enter Vietnam in 1965. "They called me 'Hawk' back then," he says. The call-name circulated military bases, enemy and friendly, for two years in Vietnam. Bill was a Marine Force Recon. As a sniper his real identity was known by few.

Today, Bill and Janis, his wife of over 20 years, are AmeriCorps members. And they are only two of the many fascinating faces in the Holiday Inn convention room this week.

In late 1965, Bill’s mother Eugenie, received a letter. “The President of the United States regrets to inform you…”

Eugenie’s son was dead to her for almost a year.

I had dinner with Bill on Tuesday night.

“I had to jump out of a helicopter that was shot down,” he says.

He was behind enemy lines for 27 days before being found. His weight went from 180 to 118.

He and one other Marine jumped. Three others died in the chopper. Wounded and battered, Bill had no idea that his family and friends thought he was dead.

This was October 1965. Flash forward to May 1966. Bill has successfully reintegrated into Recon-detail and because of his sniper security clearance has no contact without the outside world.

But in May 1966, from a Red Cross phone, Bill called his mom.

“We got a letter saying you were dead,” Eugenie said.

‘“I’m not. I’m talking to you,” he said.

“I don’ t know who this is, but it’s a sick joke,” Eugenie said.

“No, really it’s me.”

Bill returned from Vietnam and entered into a successful business-life as a citizen. In 1995, he and Janis moved to Winnsborough, Tex. population 2, 439. On a trip to the post-office he stuck up a conversation with the post-master, a fellow Vietnam veteran and Marine.

It took a bit to connect.

“What was your call-name?” the post-master said.

“Hawk,” Bill said.

“I’m Bluejay,” the postmaster said.

The small-town postmaster was Bill’s mission commander in Vietnam nearly 30 years prior.

Due to security they had never met.

The Prides will be traveling throughout 14 counties in Northern Texas raising awareness for a non-profit called “Bridging the Gap.”

Meet Torrie Willis.

She’s 19. Her daughter McKinley just turned one. And she’s five months pregnant with a boy. She likes the ring “Courtney” has.

Her sentiments about Poverty—the ailment her mission hopes to eradicate, was better than any sociologist I’ve ever heard. She peeled the layers of public perception.

She told us about many Arkansas-welfare citizens whom she’d consider lazy.

And about the generations of family poverty that basically brainwash those that come after.

And about the citizens who work so hard to get out but can’t.

Then she told us about her.

She’s 19, and living below the poverty line. Born and raised in the community she’ll be serving, Forrest City, Arkansas, Willis is close to an associate’s degree in Biology and even closer to the St. Francis County Community Development Corporation.

She volunteered there last summer. “I really liked helping people.”

I wonder why more people aren’t compelled.

Willis, a Forrest City, Ark. native, will serve 12 months in her community.

Meet Todd M.

At 44, he’s been a practicing attorney since 1991. Todd isn’t hard to miss. He has a big smile and big voice.

And he’s been in a wheelchair for 23 years. After the car accident, he remembers lying in the hospital bed.


The way he tells it now, “I realized I had nowhere to go but up.”

The C5-6 spinal cord injury is what happened to him. Todd is considered a quadriplegic but has some use of his extremities.

Equipped with an endearing wit, you wouldn't ever know the depths of Todd's accident.

Todd will be providing legal advice and services to local organizations with aspirations of achieving 501C3 tax-exempt non-profit status.

Meet Thuy Quach and Ba Truong.

These Vietnamese women, one a naturalized citizen and one a permanent resident had a translator. But I don’t think they needed one.

I spoke slowly and often found myself forgetting to conjugate verbs.

Ba, 63, has been in Houston, Tex. for nine years. For the past seven she was a florist in her largely Vietnamese community. “160,000 Vietnamese in Houston,” she said. She is there with a large family with a new addition soon. Her 28-year-old daughter is seven months pregnant.

Thuy, 56, moved to the States two years ago to take care of her 80-year-old mother. She moved from Qui Nhon City and began in Seattle. “Climate is too cold,” she said. Thuy was a middle-school teacher in Vietnam.

The two will serve their year at the Center For Faith and Health in Houston. Both will be coordinating health screening programs for Vietnamese residents.

Bye-Bye Austin.

Over 50 American citizens and Thuy, a legal resident, will begin or continue their year as an AmeriCorps member this week.

Others members of interest.

Christopher Holder, an 18-year-old high school graduate with a deep-Louisiana twang will be a Volunteer Coordinator for Habitat for Humanity in Webster, La.

Cory Holbert, who worked the last five years in a guitar shop, will be promoting water cleanliness for the Audubon Society in Arkansas.

John Haley, master’s educated and professional photographer is going through a career change. He wants to work in non-profits from now on. A big task, he will be helping Orleans Parish neighbor, St. Bernard, rebuild post-KATRINA.

Stephanie Erickson, 23. It was crazy to see her because we went to college together at the University of Oregon in Eugene. She’s always been the type to do this. But I had no idea I would see her at the Holiday Inn in Austin, Tex. Erickson will be working in the Austin Second Harvest Food Bank.

Ares Saldana, 21. A University of Texas-El Paso graduate, Saldana will be working for Border Fair Housing in El Paso. The organization fights for suitable living for Latinos in El Paso.

Lauren Tichenor. An undergrad degree from a prestigious Scottish university and a Masters from a school in Australia, Tichenor finds herself in Claiborne Parish, La. “Somewhere near Shreveport,” she says.

And many more.

The faces are incredible. It's funny how things work in New Orleans and in other struggling parts of the country. I realize now that the AmeriCorps members are a part of a process, one with no viewable end, but a purpose none the less.



To view more about a year of service in the AmeriCorps go to