Fragments of hope help Katrina victims rebuild their lives

After Katrina, I gave. Millions of people around the globe gave - money, boxes of goods, maybe even comfort at American Red Cross centers. But true giving goes beyond all those initial efforts, right to the piece of your spirit you must wrench free to share on someone's behalf.

I have taken on the task of helping a family, Kate and Will Powers of Hancock County, Miss., makers of ceramic Mardi Gras masks. For the past quarter century they have put a smile or a smirk on the face of New Orleans, and my little mission is to return the favor.

They are just one of the 2,500 families washed up in the area surrounding Norfolk, Va., known more aptly than ever as Tidewater, but they have served as my microcosm of postdisaster Americans.

Giving to Katrina's victims, especially those displaced, is like trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle in a Category 6 weather event. No sooner is a piece in place than another is blown away and you have to carve a whole new one and paint it to fit the picture.

I've read about others like me, one newspaper used the term "private sector facilitators" - fancy words for a simple time-honored act of being a good neighbor. I see it more as being a "weaver" who works the threads of government and private aid into the lives of those in need, crafting a basket to carry them to their safe new homes where they should be welcomed with open arms.

Here's how weavers work: You help someone get food, and right away they need a table to eat on and maybe a roof over it all and a place for their child to go back to school.

Then you learn these are decent, hard-working folks who don't feel all that great about taking charity indefinitely, and you try and help them get a job, or restart their modest business.

You get within striking distance of the new goal and learn that the place donated for them to live in is only available for another month. How can anyone concentrate on a new job or restarting a business when they need to apartment hunt? But they don't have money for security deposits and rent, so you're back to restarting the business. You must weave tightly for your efforts to hold every thread of their lives.

Beth Stevens, development specialist at the Red Cross, asked me to assist Kate and Will. They want to continue to supply masks to the French Quarter.

However, after seeing their kiln in a tree and their neighborhood in Hancock County shattered like a ceramic face they once knew, they decided to restart in Norfolk. Here all that is needed is work space, rent money, and materials - and being free, for a time at least, of not having to deal with the burden of rebuilding an entire infrastructure and civilization.

I knew from the Red Cross that the Powers, like so many others across the country are lost in the red-tape snafu. No insurance check has come. They applied for a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan but nothing has happened and phone lines are always busy at the SBA these days.

"We've done everything we were told to do," Kate said in her clipped Australian accent. Will is the Southerner. "All the applications were filed early, but we find that people who filed last week already have checks, while many who filed right away are waiting still."

In the words of Ms. Stevens of the Red Cross, "There is no system to the system, apparently. It's not a criticism, just a fact. In some cases they get right in and out and have a check and others, like the Powers, just seem to be on hold."

In a moment of either optimism or ego, I tried to lift the load by researching the availability of funds for small businesses. After all, it just makes sense that if we don't help these businesses rebuild we can hardly complain when all the goods formerly produced by them become "Made in China."

I came up empty.

Billions given, yet there appears to be nothing available to help these folks lease a cheap, 1,500-sq.-ft. work space where they can fire an electric kiln and remold their lives. Being relocated seems to make it worse - out of sight, out of luck.

On television, I watched two New Orleans classical musicians be taken in by the Virginia Symphony, while chefs from the French Quarter are relocating to places like Utah and Ohio.

You can't break a spice rack like the Bayou and wash it all over the country and not change the flavor of the nation.

In the case of the Powers they will transplant a little Mardi Gras to Old Dominion University and its ceramics department. Seeing the opportunity to give students a taste of the apprentice life and how to be an artist in business, ODU president, Roseann Runte, gave Powers the rent-free use of the First Virginia Bank building, owned by ODU, from now until its slated demolition next summer.

Will and Kate are not sitting back and watching others do the work for them. They went back to Mississippi and dug in the mud to unearth 112 finished ceramic masks. Then we came up with a plan: sell their past to buy their future.

The masks go up for an international online auction (www.maxanet.com/atlantic) at the artists' co-op D'Art Center here beginning Friday and lasting for 10 days.

Seeing them methodically clean and ready the only things they have left and hand them to an auctioneer was the last drop that broke my emotional levee.

I realized I had been mistaken about the role of the weaver in all this. Our role is to receive as much as it is to give. I am enriched by the experience of having met the courage, hope, and pride inherent in the human spirit. I have been given the essence and culture of another city.

I don't have to wear a mask to smile when I look at Kate and Will, or the millions of others who, every day in hundreds of cities, clean up and share their treasures with their new neighbors.

This is a moment in American history when the nation is awash in opportunity. This is the time that will be seen as the genesis of Mardi Gras in Norfolk and authentic gumbo for lunch in Ohio. We are seeing what was hidden behind the mask of suffering was our own face.

Lisa Suhay is a children's book author and part-time writer for Old Dominion University's in-house publications.

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