Guest Blog from Tony Fernandez of Kaiser Permanente

                When I applied to Kaiser Permanente’s Gulf Coast Rebuild project I never thought I would be chosen. I didn’t apply for the 2011 rebuild because after I read the application I sensed that they were looking for applicants with a lot of volunteering and community service experience, which that I did not possess at the time.  In January of last year, I made it a habit to get more involved in my community; and I began to volunteer a few days a month at various organizations throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. I continued this effort when I relocated with Kaiser to Burbank - a move I made to be closer to my son who lives in the L.A. area. When I decided to increase my community involvement, the desire to participate in the KP Gulf Coast was not a reason for doing so. I wanted to volunteer solely to give back. I felt I was far more fortunate than a lot of people and I wanted to help out those in need any way I could. I forgot about the volunteer trip to New Orleans, until John Edmiston, the project founder, sent out the message requesting applicants.  I decided to give it a shot, filled out the application, and sent it back.
                In January of 2012, I found out that I was one of 30 people chosen from over 800 applications. Those who applied were Kaiser Permanente employees from all over the country, including people from regions where Kaiser Permanente did not have a medical presence, but still maintained regional corporate offices. The application process was very competitive and it was a great honor to be selected to represent KP in New Orleans.  I thought it was amazing that the company I worked for sent people to help rebuild in the Gulf Coast, considering they didn’t have any vested interest in the region. To me this just solidified that I was working for a company that truly cared about people. I read the acceptance email over a couple of times to make sure I was reading it correctly. I was filled with a deep gratitude for the opportunity to be of service, but I didn’t know at all what to expect.
                The last time I was in New Orleans was for Mardis Gras about ten years earlier.  It was a crazy time from what I remember. When I departed on that trip I was a little disappointed with myself for not taking in all the cultural points of interest the city offered. One of the first thoughts that came to mind when I was picked was that I would never get to sights that I missed the way they were before Katrina hit, but I was grateful to get to return to New Orleans, because now I would be able to give back.
                Most of our group arrived on Sunday afternoon, April 29th and they were met by vans at the airport and taken to the four-bedroom bunkhouse in Mid City, where we would stay for the week. Besides the 30 volunteers that were chosen, 10 additional volunteers known as the “Repeat Offenders” stayed at the house. The Repeat Offenders (ROs) were a group of men and women previously chosen by KP to volunteer, but now they returned on subsequent visits on their own accord. For some of the ROs, this was their fifth or six visit back to rebuild New Orleans. The ROs were a wealth of knowledge since they saw the city change over the past few years. They provided a lot of valuable insight into many aspects of NOLA, and many of them also had familial or personal ties to the city.
As a group of 40, we slept 10 people to a room and took four minute showers only once a day. The lack of conveniences helped the group become acquainted rather quickly. One thing about the group that I noticed right away was that everyone was talking and getting along rather well from the get go. I believe that could be attributed to two things, Kaiser Permanente employing great people and the idea that volunteers are people who are use to just showing up at events where they work together with strangers to accomplish common goals.
                Later on Sunday evening the group walked to a park down the street for an introduction and overview into what we might expect for the week. As stories were told by the Repeat Offenders of past trips, I could see that people were already getting emotional. The more experiences I listened to, the more I wanted to get right to work.
                When we got back to the bunkhouse groups were assigned to project leaders and everyone signed up for their weekly assignments. The teams that we chose on Sunday night were the people we would be working with all week long. I signed up to work on Mr. Bono’s house.
                Monday started with a two-hour tour of the city and we learned about the areas that were most affected by the Hurricane. I was amazed by the amount of damage that still remained. Seven years later and it seemed like more than half of the city was still a mess. I don’t think many people know how much work still needs to be done and how many people are still displaced. I talked to many locals that week also and a they too thought that the rebuilding was mostly over. Having the knowledge of the destruction that occurred not only overwhelmed me emotionally, but made me want to start working on the project I chose right away. 
                My project the first day was to drywall Mr. Tony Bono’s house on Pasteur Street in the Gentilly neighborhood. At Mr. Bono’s house the KP group partnered up with local project leaders Catherine from the volunteer organization of Phoenix of NOLA and Sebastian from Hands On New Orleans.  Catherine possessed tons of knowledge in carpentry and knew how to instruct and lead a work crew. I found out that she had been helping her dad and grandpa build houses since she was 13 years old.  Sebastian was also very helpful and professional, and he and Catherine did an great job of guiding our team’s work on Monday afternoon and all day Tuesday. They quickly became part of our family and were equally impressed with our group’s work output. Another great outcome of our work at Mr. Bono’s house was that many of the volunteers were learning new skills that they could take back and use at home or at volunteering events in their communities. I really enjoyed my time at Mr. Bono’s, but was bummed that we did not get to meet him or his family.
                Every night at the bunkhouse one of the groups would cook dinner for all of the other volunteers. A debrief was held after we ate so that all the groups could hear each team’s progress. Along with updates about the different projects, people shared emotional stories of their interactions with locals who were affected by Katrina, either through material loss or the death of a loved one. Those stories brought the work we were doing even closer to home. For me, the more stories I heard the more work I wanted to do. To not get too overwhelmed mentally, about mid-week, I had to remind myself that work in this city would be going on for many more years after my group left. I had to remember we couldn’t fix everything. 
                On Wednesday each group moved on to a new project. My clan moved to the 7th Ward to work on Ms. Emily’s garden: an oasis in an otherwise desolate area of the city where a young lady maintained an urban garden and taught the local children how to plant and harvest their own food. Ms. Emily and the kids would harvest and cook dinner on Thursday nights often using food from the garden. Along with the people we met through the volunteer organizations, Ms. Emily was among many of the transplants who came to New Orleans for school or work who dedicated themselves to the rebuilding efforts.  I was deeply affected by all the selfless giving I witnessed throughout the week.
                The Kaiser Permanente contingent participated in two group projects throughout the week, at Success Preparatory Academy, building and presenting bikes to children at the school, and finishing the week building a “Senior Serenity Garden” in Mrs. Pittman’s yard in the St. Bernard Parish. It was amazing to see the whole group complete so much work in such a short timeframe.
                I want to dedicate my life to volunteering and helping out where I am most needed. I was honored to be chosen to go to NOLA and help continue rebuilding. One of the things that most affected me on my trip was the devastation that still remained almost six and a half years later. At our closing dinner on Friday, one of the people in our group spoke about the importance of a home and what a home means. I couldn’t imagine losing not only my home, but everything I owned. Because of Katrina some people in New Orleans not only lost their home and all their possessions, but they lost loved ones too. The amazing thing is that a lot of those people continued to move forward. They didn’t give up. It was an honor to be able to go to New Orleans and help rebuild a community of some of the friendliest and proudest people in our nation. I took a piece of the city home with me in my heart and hope I can come back soon to continue what I started a few weeks ago. 

1 comment:

Jamie said...

Tony summed up our experience beautifully!

My team had the great pleasure of working on Ms Mary Rush's house. I heard that we had a rather unique experience, getting to meet several of the PNOLA team. Megan, Vanessa, and Jesse were the crew who were there all the time working on the interior, and John, who was so patient with us answering our questions, repeating answers, and demonstrating when needed. Then we got to work with Kirt, who was willing to jump right in and stay late with us, perfecting anything that just was "not acceptable". Grace, who was brave enough to take on a job she had never even seen before; and gave us quite encouragement. Heidi, who was our Supply Queen, she brought us every tool we needed, and even some we didn't ask for (thanks for the jackhammer, by the way, that was fun). Jim, who stopped by a couple of times and gave us expert advice. And my two California transplant heros, Jessie and Sarah, who told us their story and were kind enough to answer our questions.
Our mission was to build a wheelchair ramp for Ms Mary. I am sad to say that in the total 3 days we were there, we did not complete our job, but we did get quite a bit done. Because of Ms. Mary's situation, we were not able to meet her, but we did talk to as many people as possible about her, and everyone who did, smiled and said one thing in common, "She is just a ball of Sunshine". Although we didn't get to meet her, I think we all felt like we knew her by the time we left. I only wish that I could see her Welcome Home Ceremony.
I am inspired by the people that I met, and hope to someday be able to help out more than just one week at a time.
I plan to come on vacation, and hope Ms. Mary won't mind if I stop by to take pictures of the finished product!
Thank you PNOLA for your time, sweat, and efforts!
Jamie Taylor