Monday, February 06, 2006

 

Thank You: Volunteers, Donors, and Biloxi !

Our HandsOnUSA project came to a successful conclusion on January 31st, 2006 - heartfelt thanks to our 1,500 wonderful volunteers, and the generous donors who made our efforts possible. We took out major ads in the SunHerald on the 31st, and again on the 1st of February, to thank the citizens of Biloxi for their warmth and acceptance, and also to clearly delineate the end of our project, and the transition to HandsOnNetwork responsibility for the operations in subsequent months. Seven of our team leaders are staying on in stipended HON positions, as well as two in Associate Director roles, so we are optimistic that the " figure it out and do it..." style developed over the past months will contribute to continuing effectiveness.

While years of effort will be required as the area progresses toward the recovery phase from this massive disaster we have moved forward with our announced plans, and will be operating over this interim period as Hands On Disaster Response ; providing support to HandsOnNetwork (HON) through the next few months, getting some R&R from the non-stop efforts since early September, communicating with our volunteers and donors re our accomplishments, and future plans, organizing "lessons learned", and establishing dialogue with organizations with whom we might collaborate in future deployments.

We'll participate in the HON annual conference in early March, and are laying plans for a fact-finding mission during April to areas ravaged by recent disasters, from Indonesia and Thailand, where the tsunami recovery operations are in full force, to Pakistan and Africa, where we will investigate how our style of volunteer-based support might be able to be effective. We are also anxious to participate in any forum that allows us to share our on-site perspective of the overall response to Katrina, and share in conversations to improve future capabilities; let us know if you hear of any opportunities.

Also, the 2006 Hurricane season officially begins June 1, extending for 6 months, with current forecasts giving a better than 80% probability of a major event during this season ( see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_Atlantic_hurricane_season ).

So, we lived our motto: "Be the Change You Want to See in the World".... Together we created a community that was open, productive, loving, caring, considerate, learning, flexible, amazingly self-organizing , and self-motivating, delivering life changing impact to both our served communities, and to ourselves. And had fun doing it.

Please keep up with our Director's reports, through the web, and make sure we have your current e-mail by letting info@handsonusa.org know.

Thanks to all who were with us on this wonderful journey, and y'all keep in touch...

Love, David

Monday, January 30, 2006

 

Five months after Katrina hit, an update...

Two weeks since my last post, sorry for the gap. To quickly summarize that period, we had a great turnout for the Martin Luther King day parade, with our 80+ volunteers sporting creative signs representing the many different states and countries we hail from ( UK, Australia, Germany, plus 40 states, very colorful). Since the parade route wound through the streets of East Biloxi, where we have been a constant presence since the week after the storm, the appreciation of the community was spontaneous, appreciative, grateful......great.

Our monthly operations report, this time authored by Marc Young ( Scuba, to most HOUSA'ers) captures our efforts in both words and pictures, and is available on the website at http://www.handsonusa.org/index.cfm?section=120day_report

Further recognition, and a fun day, occurred this week when we participated in a playground build, organized by Kaboom! This Not-for-profit helps bring communities together by designing a new playground with the kids and parents, then having components manufactured so that they can all be assembled, by volunteers and the community, in one busy day. We provided much of the labor, with about 50 volunteers pitching in, and joined many groups in celebrating the day with a visit by First Lady Laura Bush. Among other commendations she named our Bill Driscoll, Jr as a Presidential Citation for Community Service award winner, well deserved for his months of effort. The playground is located in Kiln,MS, home of Green Bay legend Brett Favre, who also joined the ceremony.

Last week came to a close with a Thank-you to HandsOnUSA event, where we received emotional tributes from officials of Biloxi Dave Staehling and Bill Stallworth, and were honored with presentation of the only surviving key to the City of Biloxi. Our volunteers ( and me) were misty eyed as Bill spoke eloquently, metaphorically describing how our gutting of destroyed homes " ripped out the despair", and our efforts gave people a sense of hope..... He's been a great leader, and a great friend.

Re Coastal, the Community Health Center we have worked with so closely, things took a major step forward with the official signing of an agreement with Project Hope to fund $400K to develop an interim facility in Moss Point, MS - this is a major positive step and one that we hope will advance other support activities we have underway. We also received 2 truckloads of furniture donated from Brigham and Woman's Hospital in Boston, and both these partners are also working with Coastal to help with a severe shortage of nurses.

Had an interesting day yesterday, spending Sunday inside a broken casino barge, a 3 story behemoth tipped at a 15 degree list, and totally destroyed by Katrina. We had the opportunity to salvage useful components, and labored for hours in dark and slippery conditions, hauling kitchen equipment etc that we will deliver to the Loaves & Fishes soup kitchen in E Biloxi. We also recovered some vauable countertops, wood finishes, etc which will find their way into some Biloxi rebuilding projects. Seven hours of climbing up and down stairways at a severe angle is like a day of skiing the moguls, and certainly reminded me of why it's goood to have so many young folks around !

To that note, we also celebrated our long-term volunteers this week, giving out special black tee-shirts earned by more than 30 days cumulative service: 83 recipients, who have meant so much to allowing us to run with high productivity but low protocol. (neat photo at the website)

We are on schedule to have our transition dinner this Tuesday, and anticipate that the momentum we've established, and the strong carry over of team leaders and volunteers, will provide a powerful platform for HandsOnNetwork to build upon.

Thanks for your interest, and support.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

 

200 volunteers in house, and still a happy family....!

We passed the "200 volunteers at one time" level in the past week, and while crowded, spirits and productivity remained high. The benefits of being able to turn out a crew of 50+ for a park cleanup outweigh the daunting challenge of preparing breakfast to be fed to that crowd, all in the 7 - 7:45 time slot so that teams can hit the road at 8 AM.

Major components of the current population are made up of students from several schools, who have done great work and added a positive dynamic to the buzz. Thanks to Huntington College, Dartmouth, Alfred State, St Bonavanture, Williams, ( and a few others) for your spirit and productivity.

We're entering the weekend celebrating Martin Luther King Day, and one of our many contributions of the past week was to turn out 100's of volunteers ( including a large group from Keesler AF base) to be sure the parade route will be in good shape; we've contributed so much to improving the overall civic appearanc of Biloxi that there is developing a contagious feeling that this community will "beat Katrina".

The other major development over the past 2 weeks has been further agreement and clarification of our plans to transition at the end of the month. We are moving forward with a partnership that will help launch HandsOnGulfCoast, to pick up where we leave off, absorbing our current volunteers, team leaders, facilities, equipment, and projects. This effort, a program of Atlanta-based HandsOnNetwork, anticipates a 2 year commitment, with as many as 1,000 volunteers across the Mississippi/Louisiana coast, providing a dynamic new resource to contribute to the recovery/redevelopment activities here.

We ( basically being myself, Darius, and Scuba Marc ) will provide advice and support to their efforts, while grabbing some R&R time, and starting to document lessons learned over the past 4+ months.

Our objective is to start now to prepare for our next deployment, with our mission to become the best organization in the world at utilizing volunteer resources to aid victims of natural disasters. Over the coming months we will explore relationships with other organizations that might aid us in our mission, and gather the technical capabilities that will enhance our rapid effctiveness; we'll also be happy to speak about our experiences here in any forum that will help advance the cause of volunteer participation, or an understanding of the events in the midst of a major disaster such as Katrina, or the tsunami.

So, in about 2 weeks, we anticipate turning over the keys to a highly effective , fluid, self-organizing volunteer force of 100+, with experienced team leadership and tested systems for work order management. We believe our primary mission is to be the early responders, dealing with the dynamic challenges in the first 120 days following a disaster, and that we can best serve that mission by concluding here, and starting preparations for the future.

Thank you to our 1,500 volunteers, to all our great team leaders, and to Darius and Mark. We've delivered not only dramatic physical results to the people of the Mississippi GulfCoast, but a clear message of caring and compassion, from all across the country. We're all better for it.

stay tuned.....

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

 

Merry Christmas, goodbye Gramma Wind, and tsunami anniversary.....

Happy Holidays to all. A busy week; while in Atlanta on Tuesday preparing for a major meeting with the leadership of HandsOnNetwork I received a call from my wife, Gay ( the photographer who did the great "Who are we" photo series down in Biloxi ) that her Mom had been rushed to the hospital, 2 hours later Gramma Wind passed away. So unexpectedly we gathered as a family, not for our traditional Christmas celebration, but to say a sad goodbye to a quiet, supportive, strong and loving woman who left 6 children, 16 grand-children, and 14 great-grandchildren - quite a positive impact on the world. Hers was a good life, filled with warm memories, but every death reminds us to question our own plan, or purpose, for our individual lives.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the terrible tsunami that ripped through the Indian Ocean, taking over 225,000 lives in minutes, and leaving physical and emotional scars that will survive for many years. But it was out of that devastation that HandsOnThailand was born, so in all change there is an opportunity, maybe even a mandate, for new changes to appear. The world reacted in such a spontaneous outpouring of shared grief, offers of aid, and extraordinary outreach by governments and individuals to this disaster that it seemed to bring us all closer together, if only for an occasion. Katrina galvanized a similar response in the US, and all of us who have witnessed the brutal destruction wrought by this extraordinary disaster recognize the years of cooperative effort that will be required to help put people's lives back together.

And we are helping. Amy's program delivered toys to every child we had identified on our list, and we used targetted donations from Adam to provide over $10,000 of certificates for food, and propane tank refills for the expanding FEMA trailer population. Loaves & Fishes, the Biloxi soup kitchen, can get back in business, and the Salvation Army distributed food and toys, all made possible by HandsOn volunteers in the hundreds. And we even delivered dozens of Fairytale brownies to brighten people's days; http://www.brownies.com/gfx/media_room/press_releases/katrina.pdf

Sixty or so volunteers spent Christmas Day in Biloxi, with Darius and Marc ( and, I'm told, a midnight visit from Santa), and we're expecting the census to shoot over 150 again in early January. If you're coming down to join us please be aware they we will be bursting at the seams, so great interpersonal skills will be appreciated !We will continue discussions with HandsOnNetwork, and expect that an opertions center will be established in our current location, still targetted for a Feb 1, 2006 launch. We're encouraging groups of volunteers to plan on arriving over the next several months, as we are confident we'll develop a solid ongoing relationship with HON.

The anniversary of the tsunami is a reminder, for all of us, how HandsOn came together, and how we can all contribute to the issue that brought us together, helping people who had been overwhelmed by forces beyond their control. Mike Cegielski and Pete Kirkwood, who were in Thailand and helped get efforts started, and the 300 volunteers from all over the world who came to help created a model that we are building on today. Over 1,000 people will be members of the volunteer force of HandsOnUSA through the end of January, and I think we've done great work, and learned many lessons. Our objectives over the course of the next month is to establish a stable volunteer based presence in the GulfCoast region that will be of sustaining benefit to those communities beyond the next year, and to gather our experiences so that we can be better prepared to respond to future needs.

Some of our volunteers are concerned that we will become too beuracratic if we join with HandsOnNetwork, and I think this is a valid issue. But I believe we've demonstrated, in the evolution from Thailand to Biloxi, that we can grow larger and still be effective. Our challenge is to keep the benefits of small: quick, agile, human, caring - and add the benefits of scale; broader volunteer base, immediate corporate relationships for support, stronger PR and political stature. The goal is to improve our ability to help people who have been overwhelmed by a crisis, and every decision we make will be with the intent of furthering that objective.

We are in the midst of a creation, not at its end. I don't know the outcome, but I know the powerful positive feelings that are unleashed when we simply make it easy for caring people to help people with a need. There is plenty of room in this world for this to happen, and everytime it's done, it helps..... as we've all experienced, often it helps the giver more than the receiver.

Thanks to all of the volunteers and donors who brought HandsOnUSA to life, and to all of you who support them and enable their efforts.

Please share your thoughts and comments....

david

Saturday, December 17, 2005

 

Big News !

HandsOn has some major changes in the offing, which I believe can help advance our mission.

When we adopted the name HandsOnThailand while working on the tsunami relief project we didn't worry too much about brand name checking, but picked an identification that was a clear statement of how we were working; we liked it, and picked it up as HandsOnWorldwide when we started making plans to carry on after Thailand, and started thinking about projects that might take us to needs anywhere ojn the globe. Then Katrina hit, and we focused on helping down here, and thought HandsOnUSA felt right ( HandsOnKatrina might have offended some political sensitivities, and we certainly want to be sensitive !). So we grabbed the website, and went to work.

Lo and behold we find that there is a highly respected, solid performing volunteer coordination group, HandsOnNetwork.org, that has been providing volunteer coordination services since 1992, has a strong network of 50 or so regional affilliates , mostly in the US, and a major volunteer base, great corporate support group, etc. And even better, they had decided to launch a sustained effort providing volunteer services on the GulfCoast, starting Feb 1 ( our planned end-date had been "end of January" ). We've had a number of meetings with the folks from HandsOnNetwork, and plan on joining them as a disaster response affilliate, and help launch their effort here in Mississippi, including providing assistance from our Operations Directors, Darius and Mark, and working to move some of our volunteer leaders into ongoing positions with them ( if they so choose). We will be working together from our Operations Center in Biloxi over the month of January, and expect that we can make the transition smooth and effective.

This will be great news for the people of Biloxi, who love the HandsOn crew who have helped so much, and want us to stick around. And for our volunteers, past and future, who want to retain a link to the area. We expect that HandsOnGulfcoast will create an expanded presence, both in scale and geographically, and we're anxious to help get them launched.

We still have discussions to complete with the leadership of HandsOnNetwork (HON, to save me keying time), but since we share so many common beliefs I'm highly optimistic we will find a path to make this a very positive development.

Those of you who've been with us know that one of our core beliefs is to focus on what we can do, not what others aren't doing. We adopted the inspiring phrase from Mahatma Ghandi of " Be the Change you wish to see in the world...", and I believe that is how we've been living each day. And as an indication of shared values, the banner on the top of the HON homepage is "Be the Change.Volunteer -

http://www.handsonnetwork.org/

Will we able to stay quick, responsive, self-directed, fun, and productive? I believe that's up to us, but absolutely available, and even to an enhanced capability. I intend to devote my efforts to give the best outcome we can to the people of the Gulfcoast, through an active and effective extended collaboration with the new and expanded volunteer effort here, and start the planning process for how we can get HandsOnWorldwide to become an effective vehicle for quick-start, volunteer based, highly productive disaster response. I expect that we'll tap the HON for closer connection to their growing set of corporate sponsors, but count on our direct donors to continue to support us, enabling us to control our tone and tempo.

Whew, lots of stuff to communicate, and lots more to come. We will share this information with our volunteer and donor family, because I believe strongly in open communication, and this is becoming a reality.

I think this is great. Keep an open mind, let's all learn more, and "watch this space" for breaking news.

Oh yeah, by the way, we're doing incredible things here in Biloxi. Like putting on an all-volunteer performance of the play "A Christmas Carol" as a free gift to the community, to be delivered once at the Biloxi Little Theater, and again at a local High School. Also leading a shared community/volunteer "Re-Jubilation Day", today, with hundreds of folks combining to clean up some city parks ( and letting the residents keep the tools at the end of the day). We had 180 volunteers on-site at one time this week ( with great and highly productive groups from Dartmouth and University of Chicago ), and continue major efforts: mold abatement, debris removal, interiors, gutting, working with the Salvation Army for food and clothes distribution, getting the soup kitchen Loaves & Fishes back in operation, and dozens of other projects. Our efforts on behalf of Coastal Family Health Centers continues to grow, and will show positive results with delivery of initial interim facilities next month. 30 of our guys did an overnight yesterday to Waveland, where there are years of work to be done......

We are learning, inventing, reacting, planning - but most of all giving and helping, with a hug and a smile. We've developed a bond with Biloxi that will last all our lives.

We can do more.
We will.

Happy Holidays, David

Saturday, December 10, 2005

 

three months after Katrina....

How should we assess our response to this unprecedented natural disaster ? I'm thrilled to have experienced the spirit of our 700+ volunteers, who have arrived in Biloxi with compassion, enthusiasm, and a can-do-anything spirit; and left (many to return , all staying connected) with new friends, a deeper appreciation of what they have, and what others have lost, and a personal understanding of Southern hospitality and resilience.

Our donors have been great, from personal friends who came in quickly with the substantial funds that allowed us to hit the ground running, to companies that allowed employee volunteers to work, then followed through with major checks, and to all the individuals, volunteers and others, who've helped us raise and spend about $300K so far, all for materials, supplies, tools, food, and local transportation. Not $1 of your donations has gone to any compensation or volunteer per diem, and I think we must be the most cost-effective disaster response group ever invented !

But the needs, 3+ months and counting, remain great, and the frustrations mount. Medical clinics and feeding operations are being pulled back, and the "rolling canteens" from the Salvation Army and Red Cross are alll scheduled to stop this month. There are still families living in tents, though the supply of FEMA trailers has now passed the halfway delivered mark. Redevelopment of the city of Biloxi is only at the stage of massive debris clearing, with uncertainty surrounding what areas will be converted for expanded casino operations, and what neighborhoods will be preserved or rebuilt. As a pragmatic matter the only source of funds to help here will be from the Federal government or donors; the people of Biloxi have generally lost everything, and will receive little insurance reimbursement, the city and state are vitually bankrupt, with huge increases in costs, and decreases in revenue. Federal response is halting, and confounded with broader issues. The people wait, and suffer.

Coastal Family Health Center has been the recipient of hundreds of hours of our volunteer services, with Nate, Kris, Chip, Joe and others laboring over the past months to help plan interim facilities, arrange donations of trailers, transportation, IT systems, medical equipment and supplies, and cash to keep going. ProjectHope has come through, and provided an indication of support to restore one clinic, and some essential on-site project support to finalize plans and release funds - Thank You ! Most other potential funding sources request " strategic plans, etc", or say "we'll be down next month....", when we have the base provider of healthcare to the poor on the edge of bankruptcy, and working out of gutted facilities.

The calls for assessment (of the Red Cross, FEMA, etc ) have started, and I believe are appropriate. Our nation has shown its warmth and compassion by the outpouring of volunteer arrivals, and donor contributions. But we have not been as quick and responsive and empathetic in delivering services on the street as we could be, and need to be. We will try to speak out more loudly on behalf of those we're assisting.

Our needs for volunteers remain high, and we welcome you to connect with us and join to bring some help and caring directly to the people in Biloxi, and around the Gulfcoast. We have over 100 people working today, doing house gutting, mold removal, delivering blankets and jackets, working on parks and churches, getting a soup kitchen reopened, helping the Salvation Army with food distribution, aiding a wonderful individual, David Romero ( www.midwesthelp.org ) who's running a 1 man distribution center right in the heart of EastBiloxi, etc etc. We need everyone, from college students to nurses/docs, mental health professionals to grant-writers, doers and planners.

Our volunteers are enthusiastic, empowered, self-motivated, and self-directed. You won't find a better bunch of people to be with anywhere in the world. They've chosen to " Just do it!".

Be the change you want to see in the world. If you can't join us right now, go to www.HandsOnUSA.org , and donate, so that others can stay longer, and help.

Thanks,
David ( click on "comments", and share your thoughts, and suggestions.....

Friday, November 25, 2005

 

Thanksgiving !

Had a perfect Thanksgiving Day, shared with 130 HandsOn volunteers at our operations center in Biloxi, with a spectacular meal served by friends from PA who came down just to feed us, with deserts provided by our host Church families, a warm and special evening. A neat touch provided by long-time volunteer ( and video expert) Bill Driscoll Jr, who handed me the end of a long ball of string, passed it all around the dining room until we were all holding on, and ended with Darius - then spoke about our linkage together.... very cool, very emotional, very real.

We had a wonderful visit by a major group from Alfred State College, in Southwest NY state, led by President Uma Gupta, and including staff, faculty, and students. Great workers, cooks, and supporters. Uma has even taken on the responsibility of writing "the book" on HandsOn, so watch this space for future developments !

The team has settled into a highly productive mode, gracefully accepting the constsnt transfers in and out, with tearful separations, happy returnees, and great food, and ever more organized ( but never quite perfect) allocations of folks to teams for tress, tarps, debris, interiors, mold removal, streets (giving out jackets, blankets, etc,, Humane society, admin, facilities,Salvation Army warehouse, etc etc. Volunteers cycle from task to task, based on what they want to do, and what we need - amazingly, they always seem in balance. The cooler nights have arrived, but the days are beautiful, and morale is great. With so many people in Biloxi, all sporting their "HandsOn" signs affixed to the dozens of vehicles we field every day, we are a ubiquitous, and welcomed, presence.

We got some great PR coverage with a color photo in the Oct 18th weekend edition of USA Today showing 2 of our volunteers ( fortunately, proudly wearing their HandsOn t-shirts), and several pending news stories are on the way. Never enough coverage, either od us, or the disaster around us, but some is better than none.

On the Coastal Community Health Center front they have been forced to borrow against next year's fed allocations to stay open, and we continue to labor on their behalf. We have gotten an oral commitment on up to $400K from a donor to bring one of the lost clinic backs alive, and we'll publicize all the info as soon as it gets formalized. Hoping to close with an additional donor for the major needs right here in Biloxi, but will keep plugging away with the political forces to try to force some movement in a VERY slow and unresponsive system. And this for the low coast provider of health care to the uncovered, in the poorest and hardest hit community in our largest national disaster.

The AF just presented us with a flag that has been flown over Iraq, in thanks for the work we're doing here; we've been thrilled by their participation with us, and our appreciative of their thoughts, and support.

I went to Mass on Thanksgiving morning, and honestly believe the people feel more thankful for the 10% they have left, than most of us ever are for everything we have. The people are appreciative, warm, caring and sharing, and treasure the thought that individuals from all across the country have come to care about them.

The people here are amazing, they can do anything ! The days are filled with productivity, but also laughter, tears, hugs..... Lots of conversations about "What's next for HandsOn", because we all realise that this experience has changed us all, in positive ways, and we want to continue to grow and help in unknown ways. We will , and we'll figure out how among us.

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