Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving solidarity

I had the pleasure of attending Common Ground Relief and lowernine.org's Thanksgiving dinner last night. I went as quite possibly the world's worst embedded reporter, being told at one point that my notepad was just a "cheap party trick to hide [my] social ineptitude." Well, there you have it. Gotta be cruel to be kind.

Here is my unadulterated final product. Another version can be found on NolaDefender.com, where the editing crew has become a more engaged/enraged entity.

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Last night's Thanksgiving dinner lent many moments to nostalgia.

"I'm glad we could finally get together," Sam was saying. "Last Thanksgiving we had White Russians. This is sort of a step up."

"Yeah," Erin cut in, "This year you have sangria."

Sam smiled as he wrestled with the turkey he had just pulled up from the deep fryer. "That looks so good," Erin said. "I can't wait." Pork Chop, the resident chow chow, looked on with approval.

Attendees piled their plates with stuffing, roasted squash, and cranberry pie. The dinner - sponsored by Common Ground Relief and lowernine.org, both rebuild organizations in the Lower Ninth Ward - brought together volunteers and neighbors around a laden picnic table on Deslonde Street.

Erin is Erin Genrich, a high school teacher and an employee of The Green Project, which sells low-cost building materials. She waited patiently as Sam Friedoff, a native Illinoisan and volunteer with Common Ground for the past year and a half, carved the turkey. "My Thanksgiving is going phenomenally," he said."It is great that everybody made it out tonight."

"Inviting people from the community, having family and friends around, that's Thanksgiving to me," said Tom Pepper, operations director for Common Ground Relief. "That's how it should be."

One neighborhood resident, Smitty, poked gentle fun at some of the more ragtag volunteers.

"I was around when Alice's Restaurant first came out," he told the group. "Those were real hippies. You're all too young to remember."

Smitty had been a client of Common Ground Relief, which, like lowernine.org, assists homeowners with rebuilding their Katrina-destroyed houses. Both Common Ground Relief and lowernine.org have been presences in the neighborhood for years.

"We invited Brad Pitt, but he had other plans," said one attendee who wished to remain nameless for fear of celebrity retribution, referring to Pitt's Make It Right Foundation. "Maybe next year."

Most were gratified by the confluence of their friends, co-volunteers, and neighbors.  "I'm really glad to have met the people who are doing the same kind of work down here," said Arianna Tilton, a lowernine.org volunteer from Maine. "It's important so we can create a comprehensive response to anything that's going on in the Ninth Ward."

"We work really hard here," Eryn Gilchrist, lowernine.org's client services coordinator added. "We help our clients figure out how to come home." Gilchrist, who was also celebrating her birthday, said she came to New Orleans from Connecticut two years ago because she wanted to "do something that felt good." She landed at lowernine.org, where she felt "the people are amazing."

"They sure are," Evan Howard cut in. "I've been crashing on [lowernine.org Development Director] Laura Paul's couch for weeks." Howard, who in 2005 was a first-responder with Habitat for Humanity, is now assisting lowernine.org with construction projects. "My Thanksgiving has been awesome so far," he said. "I think I should quote W. B. Yeats and say 'it was very good and I'm full."

Tom Pepper started laughing. "I think you're thinking of Alfred E. Neuman."

Common Ground Relief and lowernine.org are actively seeking skilled and unskilled volunteers to support their efforts in the Lower Ninth Ward. Those with construction management expertise are especially encouraged to apply to volunteer for either group, and Common Ground Relief is seeking volunteers with environmental science backgrounds to assist with an ongoing marshland restoration project.

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