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Vanessa’s garage

Volunteering in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—and the aftermath of my diagnosis with ALS—has helped me appreciate the complexity of asking for, and offering, help.
By Mary J. Harrington

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(©Eva Serrabassa / iStockphoto)

True service is not a relationship between an expert and a problem; it is far more genuine than that. It is a relationship between people who bring the full resources of their combined humanity to the table and share them generously. Service goes beyond expertise . . . Service is the way that this world can heal.

—Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings

I learned a lot about being helped twenty years ago when Blanche, my wonderful mother-in-law, needed to move in with us during the last few months of her life. I was working part-time, my husband full-time, and our children were one and four. Our ability to cope and handle everything was taxed to the limit. After hospice got involved, a social worker came to visit and asked me if I needed help. I immediately said yes, picturing friendly people coming to load the dishwasher, run a load of laundry, walk the dogs, make sandwiches. This would free me up to spend more time with Blanche, or more time pushing Sam on his baby swing and playing dress-up with Julia.

I had quite a list growing in my mind of all the things people could do, so I was stunned when the social worker said, “Well, good, I can come every week for an hour to talk.” Of all the things he could have offered, this was something that would never have crossed my mind: spending an hour I didn’t have talking with someone I didn’t know. I felt crushed because, in that fleeting interlude, I had let myself imagine all sorts of things we really did need. It reminded me of a song from Free to Be . . . You and Me that goes, “Some kind of help is the kind of help that helping’s all about, and some kind of help is the kind of help we all could do without.”

But I also didn’t know how to redirect things. Once I realized he and I were on different planets, I worried that what I had pictured might seem greedy or make me look like a bad daughter-in-law. I wondered if it was a gender thing and he just didn’t understand motherhood. Or maybe he thought it was obvious what you should expect from a social worker and I was the clueless one, like someone who goes into a hardware store for blueberry muffins. So to be polite, I accepted his offer and then the next day I called and cancelled.

I learned many things from that one experience, every time I’ve thought about it. It’s hard to ask for help: It puts your dignity, your sense of identity, competence, or basic human worth on the line. And being misunderstood can be excruciating. It’s easy for a vulnerable person to wind up feeling embarrassed and disappointed, not helped at all, more reluctant than ever to ask the next time.

I think about asking for help a lot now. Almost four years ago, when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, I was glued to CNN for days, going out of my mind with horror, grief, and rage. I know I was not alone in this. Many people in the Unitarian Universalist church I served as minister in Winchester, Massachusetts, asked, “How can we help?” Soon we began sending teams of volunteers to New Orleans, helping out wherever we could. We launched a nonprofit organization called Gulf Coast Volunteers for the Long Haul, which so far has organized sixteen volunteer trips with 189 volunteers, including 108 UUs from twenty congregations.

Two weeks before our second trip, in March 2006, I was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. This news was deeply traumatic. Almost overnight I lost my sense of having a future and also a lot of my identity, the ways I knew myself as an independent person: self-sufficient, healthy, and in charge of myself. I was in a complete state of shock—disoriented, terrified, and heartbroken, especially for my husband and my children.

What stands out for me about that particular trip in March 2006 was how much I needed a meaningful, powerful distraction, something big enough and compelling enough to take my mind off of my personal bad news, at least a little bit. And in a strange way I think the storm gave me that, a kind of refuge in the storm rather than from the storm. My little joke to myself was: Now I understand why they call this relief work, because it was such a relief to go somewhere else and be able to focus on other people’s crises, not just my own.

There are many terrible things about having ALS. One of them is that finding out someone has this illness is so frightening to others that it can take up all the space in the room. But I found when volunteering, I could lose myself in another kind of disaster, one happening far away rather than to me, my family, and, in a way, to my own beloved congregation.

As a volunteer in New Orleans I could fly under the radar, get lost in the crowd, and not stand out. When there, I could still feel useful and focus as much as possible on caring for others. Although I can no longer do ministry full time, volunteering has given me a sense of continuity and purpose, and ways to still be Reverend Mary. Still me.

Organizing and doing relief and recovery work has become my primary spiritual practice. I have my own understanding of what it means to be in dire circumstances that underlies everything. It binds me in spirit to the people I have met on the Gulf Coast. They have served me and given me hope, healing, and more life every bit as much as anything I have been able to offer them. Having ALS is terrible. There is nothing good about it and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone; I wish no one had to have this happen to them. Same with Katrina.

Over the last three-and-a-half years Long Haul has developed a unique way of doing service work. As things have unfolded, we’ve paid close attention to the residents and what they have to say, studied and learned from our mistakes, adjusted as things on the ground have changed, and borrowed from others’ approaches, to keep refining virtually everything. How Long Haul has evolved kind of resembles the creation of a patchwork quilt, made up of pieces that came into our hands in many different ways.

In the weeks after the storm many people were desperate to help, including hundreds of us in my church. When we were invited by a New Orleans minister to come down along with our toolboxes and work gloves, I began checking around for guidance. Most of those I consulted were skeptical or concerned: Some thought we would only get in the way of more experienced relief workers; some thought we should take all the money we would spend on airfares and send it directly to the Red Cross or other funds, allowing them to spend it on what was needed most. In those early days we were worried about the possible dangers, such as toxic floodwater, snakes, live electrical wires, rumored lawlessness.

But the minister who invited us had a place on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain for us to stay where there was electricity, running water, and a re-opened Winn Dixie nearby for groceries. The airport in New Orleans, which had been used for weeks as a field hospital, was taking planes again. The organization that did agree to assist us was the UU Trauma Response Ministry. They offered their support along with good advice and let us tag onto their insurance policy.

Once we were there, the first week of November 2005, there was no question about the feelings of the residents, including our sister and brother UUs. They were astonished that we came, full of tears and gratitude that fifteen total strangers would take time off from school and work and spend their own money to come and help, especially since everyone we met already felt abandoned and even betrayed by their insurance carriers and FEMA, by every level of government, and often too by the big charities like the Red Cross. We worked really hard, no question, but I’m not sure many people remember exactly what we did so much as that we showed up—showed up, did what people asked to the best of our ability, and said, “We’ll come back.” And then did.

So if Long Haul were to create a quilt to tell our story, their welcome and our presence would be sewn into the very center: showing up, coming back—bearing witness and keeping faith. Here I picture images of hammers, chain saws, respirators, soggy drywall, taped refrigerators, thousands of fallen trees, boats broken apart in ditches miles from shore, and cars in the treetops, surrounded by volunteers’ listening ears, breaking hearts, and wide-eyed expressions of awe for the people we met.

For our second trip, we volunteered for Project HOPE in St. Bernard Parish. St. Bernard’s was completely flooded, often to 10 or 12 feet. Project HOPE, a new effort, had a large hand-painted sign, the first thing I saw the day we arrived. Yellow with red lettering, it read, “Project HOPE: Helping Other People with Everything.” My heart did a little back flip and I thought, That’s what I want to do, too. This was no time to be sensible. People lost everything: their houses and their furniture, their photographs and their stuffed animals, their appliances and their ceilings, their favorite restaurant and their dentist, their dry cleaner and their childcare, their job and their church, their neighbors and their schools. Having lost everything, they needed help with everything. And Project HOPE knew just how to put it, wildly, extravagantly generous. Nothing low-key or modest about that group, and I wanted us to be just like them when we grew up.

And right next to Project HOPE’s yellow and red piece of the quilt another would be a red and black piece in honor of UMCOR, the United Methodist Council on Relief. We met them on the third trip, a year after Katrina. UMCOR realized that because of the magnitude of the disaster and its aftermath, recovery was going to take a very long time. So they were committing themselves as a denomination to ten years of rebuilding assistance. We were inspired by the United Methodists’ foresight, so their quilt square would celebrate UMCOR’s commitment and all of the ways they have supported us, loaning us their tools, housing our groups, sharing worksites, giving us everything we’ve needed and asked for, and then some, including us in their their prayers and friendship. Soon after learning of UMCOR’s plans, we chose the name for our new nonprofit, Gulf Coast Volunteers for the Long Haul, in January 2007.

There’d also need to be a huge patch to celebrate the thousands of our fellow Unitarian Universalists who continue to volunteer—over 100 UUs with Gulf Coast Volunteers for the Long Haul; many, many more through the volunteer program based at First UU Church of New Orleans. Right in the middle of that quilt square I see the quiet smile belonging to Quo Vadis Breaux, who runs the UU New Orleans Rebirth Volunteer Center, gently but insistently reminding everyone, “It’s not over yet.”

Showing up, keeping faith, helping with everything and anything—now we’re in it for as long as it takes.

People often ask if things in New Orleans have improved, if we can see any progress. My answer would be some yes, a lot no. Many houses are rebuilt and reoccupied. But Katrina and its aftermath led to one of the largest diasporas in U.S. history. Thousands of people are still in exile and can’t afford to come home. Rents have nearly doubled. Sixty-five thousand houses are still empty or have been bulldozed, their lots overgrown with weeds. Many of the children are struggling. We tutor third- and fourth-graders who still can’t do simple letter recognition. Their teachers estimate they lost at least two years of their education because of the storm. A small amount of attention goes a long way, but there just aren’t enough grownups, laps, and hugs to go around. The availability of family day care, the most common form of childcare in pre-Katrina New Orleans, is down 80 percent. Mental health services, needed more than ever, are virtually non-existent. Billions of dollars of federal aid are still clogged in the bureaucratic pipeline. And as the months go by, fewer people are volunteering.

Rarely are we able to completely restore anything we work on, from houses to schools to churches. Still, we have worked a little bit—and here and there quite a lot—on almost 200 houses, five churches, and six elementary schools. So here the quilt is very patchwork indeed, replete with many different projects for elementary schools, including three playgrounds, catered lunches of jambalaya and bread pudding for hard working teachers and staff, dozens of little handmade blankets for nap time, hundreds of hours of tutoring and painting a giant, rusty chain link fence French Quarter green. Add in remnants for the Greater Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Pearlington, Mississippi, and our dear friends at the North Shore Unitarian Universalist Society in Lacombe, Louisiana, along with well-loved scraps for Ozzie’s tile, Fabiola’s floors, Steve’s kitchen, Debra’s bathroom, Camille’s attic.

Which brings me to Vanessa’s garage.

Nearly everyone we work with has experienced being on the receiving end of negligence, incompetence, broken promises, and, often, fraud, with contractors taking their rebuilding and insurance funds and only partially completing the job, or doing nothing at all and just disappearing. Many of the residents are exhausted, discouraged, or even in despair.

So Long Haul encourages volunteers to reach out with interest and kindness everywhere we go. Everyone there is why we are there. This goes for rental car employees, school security guards, checkers at the supermarket, tollbooth money takers, children on the playground. A volunteer’s smile and friendliness are almost always welcome gifts. Listening to people’s stories can be healing for them even after all this time. Residents often tell us that just having volunteers show up has restored a little of their faith in humanity.

“What does help look like to you?” is the question we bear in mind everywhere we go.

No one is a mind reader. In fact no one ever really knows what someone else needs—unless you ask and then listen carefully. And once you find out, it’s crucial to respond as precisely as possible. True help enables someone to feel seen and heard, without judgment. Highly tailored, responsive help builds confidence and also your relationship.

Good-fitting help can put a smile on someone’s face, light up their eyes, even bring on a shriek of pure delight. There’s refuge and relief in such moments, when other troubles disappear for an instant. You can breathe deep, check something off a long list, feel a sense of accomplishment that is freeing, even exhilarating. You may think I am describing the response of the person who got helped, and I am. But good-fitting help puts a smile on my face, too. And I’ve seen it light up the eyes of scores of volunteers. Good-fitting help makes your heart sing. It can put your own problems in a new perspective; it is liberating, healing. A greater balm I cannot imagine.

So we say to volunteers, “Genuine help may look very different to you than what you expected or were looking forward to. But giving residents control over what we provide is an important way to show respect and respond with sensitivity and care. It is the best kind of trauma response we know of.”

Vanessa, a school counselor whose name I have changed to respect her privacy, confided to us during an earlier trip that her house was still a mess and she was still in a FEMA trailer. Since her role was helping others, she didn’t want people at her school to know about her situation. She was worried they wouldn’t let her do her job because they wouldn’t want to add to her troubles. But the weight of so many serious problems brought to her by the children, parents, and staff caused her to feel overwhelmed. In her own life she just didn’t know where to start; after more than three years, she was still stuck.

When we got back in touch on the last trip, she was surprised we remembered her. Work on her house had started but her garage was driving her crazy. Everything that could be half-way salvaged had been thrown in there and it still needed to be cleaned out. The team of young people we sent to check it out was skeptical: It looked to them like a very small project that would probably only take someone an hour or so.

Small it might be, we reassured the young volunteers, but it’s what she asked for. So back they went the next day, contractor-size trash bags in hand. When Vanessa came home that afternoon, she went wild. She called saying she couldn’t believe we’d done all that work. She never thought she’d have her garage back. It was so clean now. It had never been so clean! After she said thank you about a dozen times, she said, “Do y’all mow lawns? Because I really need to get my grass cut.”

And that last question is what brought me such joy, because it said that Vanessa had gotten unstuck. She was moving on. That little tiny project, exactly what she knew she needed most, got done. After three and a half years she could check it off the list and be freed up to go right on to the next thing. She could even ask for help with that next thing.

Rachel Remen, who counsels patients with serious illnesses, says in her book My Grandfather’s Blessings that if we hide from our suffering, it won’t go away, we’ll only suffer alone. For all of the worry, uncertainty, and helplessness I have experienced since learning I have ALS, I have never felt abandoned or alone. Terrified, yes. Sick at heart, yes. Sorrow for my children and Marty, constantly. But not alone.

And I have learned from our sixteen relief and recovery trips that when something can’t be fixed or cured or fully restored, there are things that matter and help even so, regardless of how dire the circumstances. And those enduring, healing offerings are showing up, keeping faith, never letting anyone cry alone, praying for each other, and trusting that we will never forget and always come back.

Who is on the giving or receiving end of these gifts will always be in flux, moving back and forth between us. We can take refuge and find strength in each other, in community.

The most beautiful thing about community in my experience is that when some among us are struggling or even going through hell on earth, others of us will be well enough, clear-headed enough, capable enough, to respond—to show up, take stock, and then pitch in, doing whatever it takes in that moment to offer our human presence and concrete, practical help.

However many pieces are ultimately included in the Long Haul quilt, it is stitched throughout with helping everyone with everything and staying the course for as long as it takes. Good-fitting help is the kind of help that heals your heart no matter which side of the relationship you find yourself on in a given moment. Good-fitting help is the kind of help that helping’s all about.

Adapted from a sermon preached to the Winchester, Massachusetts, Unitarian Society on April 5, 2009. The Rev. Mary Harrington will be the preacher at the 2009 UUA General Assembly’s Service of the Living Tradition on June 26; visit UUA.org/events/generalassembly/2009 for streaming video of the service. See sidebar for links to related resources.

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