Thursday, May 15, 2008

Ten month wild ride

Camp Hope by Habitat for Humanity
May 15, 2008
St. Bernard Parish, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

They aren't glamour children. Often they're just out of high school or taking a break from less than starry-eyed college experiences. Some have finished their degrees. Whatever the path, AmeriCorps NCCC members are quietly doing some of the most important work in the rebuilding of the gulf coast--the stuff that happens in the sun and sometimes the moonlight.

At the Orleans St. Bernard parish line Claiborne Avenue becomes Judge Perez Avenue, residents' skin goes from black to white in nearly an instant. The boarded doors and vacant businesses remain strikingly strong, similar.

Fifteen miles past the parish line, an old elementary school now houses up to 600 recovery volunteers a night. They cook for each other, clean up after each other and ultimately work with each other here in south Louisiana, understandably foreign to all of us.

One license plate in Camp Hope's parking lot tonight reads, "Ontario."

Camp Hope is the brainchild put into action by Habitat for Humanity. Currently there are about 200 people staying here because of President Jimmy Carter's blitz build happening this week. The non-profit hopes to start and finish 7 homes from start to finish as well as dedicate and/or start 50 more.

But, I've come to meet some of the most interesting young people in America. Of the 200 people staying here, about 110 of them are members of an AmeriCorps' program called the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC).

The "N-triple-C" members implant themselves into communities in teams of 11 for three months at a time. They are at the beck and call of the non-profits they serve. Once the locals get to know them, the National Civilian Community Corps members are referred to simply as the "N-trips." Their total term of service is 10 months.

Jessie Loubet, 24, is a leader of an NCCC team. His nails are painted black and his hair passes his shoulders just enough to look like a rocker on R and R. He says his team works 9-12 hour days that include physical training three days-a-week. NCCC teams live, eat, sleep and work together. All teams are composed of Americans 18-24.

It often, former AmeriCorps NCCC members say, becomes the Real World without the cameras.

"At the end," Loubet says, "we become like family."

Loubet's team is working in New Orleans with a non-profit called Hope has a Face. They are working to turn a warehouse into a community center and volunteer housing quarters. Before New Orleans, the team spent seven weeks in Pearlington, Miss. This is the best description of Pearlington, written by blogger and photographer Clayton Cubbitt:

Pearlington Mississippi was never much to look at, as far as towns go. Even before Katrina it had barely 1,600 citizens. It doesn't have a main street, or a town square. It doesn't have a mayor or a city council. Since Katrina, it doesn't have a post office, a library, or an elementary school. It's a collection of winding country roads, of mossy trees and swamps, dotted with a patchwork constellation of homes, most quite humble even before the storm sank them under twenty feet of muddy water. It's primordial America. It's America before mega-malls and exurbs and freeways stitched it up and plasticized it. But this isn't the autumnal village America featured in political ads or Rockwell paintings, either. This is the dirty deep American South, scruffy and proud. Red mud and fried shrimp. Hard work and love of God. Blacks and whites on different sides of town, mingling in the middle. It sits on old Highway 90 midway between the decadent nights of New Orleans and the white beaches of Biloxi. It's a tiny microcosm of Louisiana and Mississippi lost in the bayous on the border between them. It's the old American dream, covered in drifting Spanish moss (

Pearlington, corps member Andrea Portales says, made the team of 11 bond quicker than expected.

The town had no stop lights and no places to go, so they spent time with one another, she says.

At 24, Portales is the oldest on the team.

"They used to call me Mother Goose," she says.

Portales is from Del Rio, Tex. She started school at Texas Tech in Lubbock and went to school for three years. "I'm going to have to start all over," she says. Portales isn't unlike many of the people NCCC attracts. Young Americans looking for something bigger than themselves and the personal benefit of getting 10 months to think about their next move.

On Loubet's team, three have college degrees, five have attended some college and three have not been enrolled in school.

"Last year I got the exper
ience of a lifetime. I gutted homes in New Orleans, I did forestry work in the hills of Tennessee and tutored kids in Charleston, S.C.," Loubet says.

"What other program can you do that in?"

There's four teams (44 people) working with Hope has a Face so they've broken the work into shifts for all the teams. From sunrise to darkness, NCCC teams work at the warehouse.

The last team finishes just before midnight.



Wednesday, May 7, 2008

AmeriCorps week profile: Narda Hernandez

May 7, 2008
Tulane University Community Health Clinic
611 N Rampart Street
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

When we heard the news, it made us feel like, at least for a moment, somebody got something right.

Narda Hernandez, 23, has been awarded a fellowship to stay and work in New Orleans for two more years. There's talk down here about a brain gain--young people with educations moving here falling in love with the City and staying.

Hernandez is a part of this group, but she's more valuable than most, because she's big on ideas others don't pay much attention to.

Hernandez is from Laredo, Tex. Her word choice switches from English to Spanish, sentence to sentence, no matter the native tongue of her counterpart. She came to New Orleans with the AmeriCorps, a one-year commitment she made right after graduating college.

Over 600 AmeriCorps and Teach for America members are currently working in the City.

After the storm, Spanish-speaking day laborers flooded New Orleans. They, in no small part, have been major contributors to the recovery.

She's always had an interest in community health, and heard about the migrant and seasonal workers moving to New Orleans. Hernandez wondered what kind of health care options would be available.

New Orleans' Latino population pre-storm was only 3.1 percent according to the 2000 census.

Tulane University Community Health Clinic organizers tell the simple beginning story of one doctor, one table and an ice chest keeping the tetanus shots cold. The clinic is now funded by a portion of the 100 million dollars the nation of Qatar gave to New Orleans after the storm.

Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Amir of the State of Qatar, visited New Orleans two weeks ago. Maybe to see how his money was being spent.

Since she's been in New Orleans, (less than a year) she's started a language translation program at the health clinic. At almost all times, a Spanish speaker is available to translate doctor-patient dialog. When Hernandez first came, few Spanish speakers used the clinic. Receiving healthcare in a different language is often an intimidating or unpleasant experience, Hernandez says.

"Word of mouth started spreading and we started getting alot of Spanish speakers," she says.

Now clinic officials say that they see 30-50 Spanish speakers a week in the four full-time doctor staff that is augmented by medical residents at the Tulane University Medical School. The Spanish interpreter program is volunteer based with eight people who commit to six to eight hours a week. Tulane University undergraduate Spanish students also volunteer during the school year.

Hernandez will be leaving the AmeriCorps and community health clinic at Tulane in June for the the New Voices fellowship. New Voices provides the salary for its fellows to work for two years in accredited non-profits around the country and its mission, like the name, is to fund social entrepreneurs who may not look like decision-makers from previous generations.

"Eso es mi mero mole (That's my thing) ," Hernandez says about working with the Latino population here. During her fellowship Hernandez will be working with the Common Ground health clinic. She'll continue healthcare outreach to the migrant workers in New Orleans, but will be focusing on the Latinas who work in the hotel and tourism industry.

"The focus has been about helping males," she says. "But what about the Latinas?"

Hernandez is one of the won't take no for an answer people that New Orleans desperately needs. The small group working to improve Latino access to healthcare is strong she says.

"There is a sense of uncertainty about what will happen. The health care infrastructure is above us, but because we are a community health clinic, it gives us a sense of flexibility," she says.

"There's nothing stopping us from a community front."