Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Just Say YES

A couple Wednesdays ago, Green Light New Orleans stopped by my mom’s house to install energy efficient light bulbs. While she was there meeting them, Paulette and I worked at my house. My mother returned a couple hours later, ecstatic – she’d met a journalist who was covering the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina for the German press. Apparently, Ann the journalist was fascinated with our story - two women rebuilding with their own hands - and wanted to trail us.

I love those chance meetings that blossom into beautiful experiences. Ann turned out to be an angel. Not only warm and committed to spreading the word about New Orleans, but also HELPFUL! One day, she came to the house with the intention of taking some action photos. The first thing she did, however, was ask for a pair of gloves! Ann grabbed a shovel and helped me remove ALL the debris in the shed. What a blessing! Paulette had flown back to NY the day before and my mother’s back is not so good, so it was gonna be just me shoveling. And it had to be done that day (FEMA stopped providing construction debris removal that Tuesday, but failed to notify the public*. Fortunately, since I’d made an appointment that Monday, I was still in the queue.) So I wanted to make sure I got everything out ASAP. It was a LOT of stuff. But we finished in a couple hours! And then, just like clockwork… or magic… or something, the sky opened up and IT POURED, suddenly and intensely. Unreasonable amounts of water fell from the clouds, y’all. I’m talking zero visibility, flooding, traffic accidents, etc. If Ann hadn’t been there to help, I doubt that I would’ve gotten all that debris out before the rain. And then it would’ve been a soggy, heavy mess. Oh, how grateful am I.

* I just read an article in today’s paper saying that FEMA will stop removing construction debris on June 30th. I am confused and will call tomorrow… cuz I now have more debris.

Ann and I shoveling debris into the wheelbarrow

Ann ended up hanging out with us almost every day until her plane took off on Tuesday. My mom and I both told her our stories. We talked about life before and after the hurricane. I told her about my goals for this part of my life in New Orleans. A couple days before her departure, she offered me her car free of charge. She’d bought it during her time here and had been trying, unsuccessfully, to sell it. I guess she thought I’d be a good person to whom she could donate. I thoroughly appreciated the gesture, but I declined the offer, thinking of the added expense and responsibility, not to mention the pollution. Later I mulled over whether or not that was a good decision. I thought of two things: One, people want to be able to bless other people. Turning them away denies them that opportunity and makes them think you don’t need help. The second thing I thought of was something I’d heard a while back I only remember the gist of what this guy said - “Never turn away a gift. You never know what could happen.” He’d been led to bigger and better things with each acceptance.

Needless to say, this got me to thinking. Coincidentally, a few days before, Paulette had suggested that I create a place for PayPal donations on my blog (she'd been getting lots of positive feedback from talking about her New Orleans experience on Again, I said “No.” This is my email response verbatim:

this house is an investment for me. it wasn't my primary residence. i wasn't displaced by the hurricane. i didn't lose my home and all my belongings. i just lost money as a result of the hurricane. i actually was quite lucky; who gets to file such a big claim after having paid for just one year of insurance? granted, i didn't get any money for flood damage, but i think i can make the necessary repairs with what i have.

there are other people who REALLY experienced true loss as a result of the hurricane and the failure of the local and federal govt to protect the city. THEY need more help than i do. i'm young; i'm eager to work and learn; i don't have the emotional attachments to the whole situation that other people have. i don't feel like i was a "victim" of Hurricane Katrina.

so i wouldn't feel right asking people to donate to ME. maybe i could collect donations to support friends and family who really DO need it. or worthy organizations that i know for sure are using the money to help Katrina victims. but outside of that, i think it would be misleading to categorize myself as a Katrina victim and ask for donations when there are SO many people who really do need assistance and are not getting it.

So, while I was willing to accept help in the form of volunteers, I wasn’t comfortable with accepting monetary or material donations. I was thoroughly conflicted over this issue; I talked to my parents about it; I sat and thought about it a long time.

This is the conclusion to which I’ve come: I am committed to doing my part to revitalize my neighborhood. That is my entire purpose for being here. Merely witnessing the state of the neighborhood (and New Orleans, in general) strengthens my resolve daily. Right now, there is literally NO ONE living on my block. One house across the street was renovated and has been “For Rent” since I moved down here in March. And my next door neighbor periodically works on his property. Besides that, all the houses are basically “lying in state.” I am here to finish my house and create a safe, well-lit presence on my street. I know that other neighbors are waiting to see what everyone else is doing. But what can actually be accomplished if everyone is waiting on everyone else? I am young; I am eager; I am not depressed or suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because of Katrina. I am fresh and ready to work; ready to revitalize. I walked away from a well-paying, comfortable “dream” job in New York and moved to New Orleans with my young daughter. We live in my mother’s one-bedroom apartment; I sleep on the floor, my daughter sleeps on a comfy cot. My dad bought me a bike and that is my main mode of transportation, besides riding in my mom’s car. Mama and I work on either my house or her house every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. On Tuesdays, I help my friend Maela with her house. On Thursdays, I volunteer rebuilding homes with The St. Bernard Project. This is not a vacation. I am here to work, to help. For that, I am willing to accept donations. I have decided to Just Say YES.

So, Paulette, I have set up a PayPal account under And I will figure out how to add something to my blog page to allow for PayPal donations.


Mtume said...

Interesting post, Jenga. I remember having some of those same feelings when I had to evacuate. Your email describes, almost word-for-word, how I felt. I saw so many people who were left with so little. It felt ridiculous for me - able-bodied, still in possession of resources, not particularly beholden to New Orleans, etc. - to accept help...particularly monetary help. But as time went on, I realized people aren't offering help because they think you're destitute or about to die or the lowest of the low, they're helping because they want to feel helpful...they want to _be_ helpful. They're helping because they want to. So eventually, if I felt like a person was sincerely offering (as opposed to offering just out of politeness or obligation), I would just say, "thanks, I appreciate that" and accept. I'd even accept stuff that I knew I wouldn't use. But I'd never throw anything away. I'd bring it down to Goodwill or the Salvation Army so somebody could get some use out of it. I think giving makes people feel good.

Hey, on a totally different note, would you send me ( a full-sized picture of you and Ann shoveling the shit? That's a great picture...I want to add it to my screen-saver roll.

Alright, Jenga. Keep on keeping on, lil' Mama!


P.S. Spilled milk and closing the barn doors and all that stuff shoulda took that car! Damn. :-(

Paulette said...

Kudos to everything mtume said.i genuinely volunteered with you because I felt like if it had happened to me I would hope folks would do the same.People told me about good karma and how I would be blessed...I'm already blessed.I will email you those pics...they're incredible.That pile was a challenge when I went at it on my own...glad you had help to remove all that mess!!!

Ann said...

jenga - I hope you are not racking your brains about the car anymore! when we spoke about me leaving you my car and you denying the offer I felt that you took the RIGHT decision. you did perfectly right because you were honest and yourself. you told me open about your feelings and I understood. there were reasons not to go for this donation.
but I appreciate the fact that you decided to have a pay pal account. let me know what the destination of the money will be (as concrete as possible so that I can add it to my article).

spending time with you and being involved in your daily live, meeting your daughter and the rest of your warm- and openhearted family gave me so much. When I came back to Germany I felt blessed, filled up with energy and happyness and i still feel like carrying a treasure with me ... THANK YOU.

Tuta said...


I gotta amen Mtume. When people offered me donations and stuff, I turned them down too. I really feel bad taking stuff from people when there are people who need help waaaaaay more than me. A part of me always feels like I am wrong for making myself more comfortable, when there are people who ain't comfortable at all.

I know it was/is a hard thing for you to accept donations like that, but I guess you have to look at things as being relative. Even though you aren't destitute and down to your last, you still could use some help.

...and to piggyback off of everybody else - people really and truly do feel good about giving. When I was staying with my brother-in-law in Florida after Katrina, we were inundated with clothes, toys, and money (over $2,000) from his fiancee's school. Even though we really only had one suitcase of stuff to our name at the time, I knew we would eventually replace everything, so I didn't feel like I should accept gifts, but everyone insisted.

I still feel bad about accepting those donations to this day.....and now I'm rambling and have talked myself into a corner.

Nothing left to say - go 'head on Jenga!!!!