My home in New Orleans is a Catholic elementary school called St Mary of the Angels, located in the Ninth Ward. It’s been temporarily converted into the volunteer center and main dormitory for Common Ground. Volunteers worked out an arrangement with the parish to clean out the building in return for using it as housing until the school would be ready to reopen as a school. During the storm the school was one of the tallest buildings in the area, so residents took refuge on the roof of the four story building and waited for helicopters to bring them to safe ground.
The classrooms serve as our bedrooms, with 10-12 cots or sleeping mats to a room (some folks have also set up tents inside the classrooms for added privacy, since privacy is hard to come by here). The gym serves as the dining area, and the kitchen is outside in a makeshift set of screened tents. It’s amazing what the kitchen crew can put together with mostly donated food.
The former cafeteria has become a lounge (The Coucheteria), with such lounge-y items as old sofas, books, and board games that are all missing at least one vital playing piece. There’s a decently well-tuned piano, a TV in a far corner (facing away from the main gathering area so it’s not too distracting), and a row of rehabbed computers that usually work and usually have a live internet connection for email.
Right now there are around 80-90 volunteers at St Mary’s, most here for a week or two to help gut houses. There are a lot of young students that come through, but people of all ages are here, including a group of grandmothers who spent a week here gutting houses. People come from all over to volunteer–in my short time here I’ve met volunteers from Australia, South Africa, Great Britain, and even Iowa.
The “office” I work at is located at the House of Excellence (in its pre-Katrina incarnation it was a house converted into a daycare center called “Kids of Excellence”). It’s on loan to us until January, and the search is on for a space that can house all the projects that go on here. The tech crew and media team work out of here, and there’s a computer lab that’s free and open to the public. The legal collective is set up in a corner of the large back room, so it’s not really an office, more like some desks and computers arranged in a three-sided square.
The front office at the House of Excellence is like most front offices, with a reception desk and fax machine and copier. This is also where all of Common Ground’s mail is delivered, including donations of all sizes and descriptions. Last week a freight truck pulled up outside and unloaded about a dozen pallets, each pallet holding dozens of boxes of books. Nobody was expecting the delivery, it seems some good folks somewhere just decided to hold a book drive and thought it would be good to send thousands of children’s books to Common Ground. Which it was, since most schools have entire libraries to restock. It just took a little extra effort to figure out where to quickly store a driveway full of books before the next rain shower.
And on the subject of donations…if you’re considering a donation of used clothing, please rethink your decision. Especially if the clothes are ones that you yourself would never be seen wearing in public. With the exception of using them to make outlandish last-minute Halloween costumes, they serve little purpose, but to take up space. Warm blankets and coats would be very welcome, though. At night temperatures will be dropping down into the 40s and lower, and there are many people who no longer have proper insulation or even utilities for their homes.