"In the evening, a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss...."
- from The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
In The Grapes of Wrath, families of Okies, faced with the challenges of displacement in Depression-era America, start to come together as larger "families." Recognizing a common humanity, the Okies help one another by joining in an ever-widening familial circle on the road to hope.
Three Madisonians have spent the last two years gradually widening that circle themselves with a series of volunteering trips. They began as a response to the victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 but have since gone far beyond. Since the disaster, Allie Berenyi, Michelle "Miche" Llanas, and Mary Young have rolled up their sleeves to help with the rebuilding process, and the boundaries of their community continue to expand.
A bus rolls into New Orleans after dark,
around 11 p.m. All the streets are dark; not even traffic signals are working. It's been six months since Katrina made landfall, and amid outrage over the government's response - or lack thereof - Americans from all parts of the country are coming to take matters into their own hands and help the victims.
The driver of the chartered bus - already a bit apprehensive about venturing into a city whose chaos and devastation have been so vividly portrayed in the media - is lost. He stops the bus, asks for directions, and then continues circling through the darkness for nearly three more hours before finally finding the FEMA-sponsored tent city for volunteers. Fifty students from Madison Area Technical College and three staff leaders step off to join in a search for hope.
Allie Berenyi, a trip leader and a construction instructor at MATC, recalls their arrival: "Six months later, and still blackout conditions. That was our introduction to the trip."
Berenyi had done some work with Habitat for Humanity, but this was her first weeklong volunteering trip. She'd volunteered with MATC's Service Learning Program to lead a group of student to New Orleans during winter break to assist in the rebuilding efforts. MATC coordinated the trip with ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, an organization of low- and moderate-income families working to build stronger communities and seek social justice. Before Katrina, their work primarily involved activism; the devastation of New Orleans, however, called for muscle.
Berenyi and her group spent a week in the upper Ninth Ward and East New Orleans, not rebuilding, but rather tearing down. "In order for the city not to bulldoze your house, you had to keep making progress on it. The first step was having it gutted." Volunteers came to strip down the structures to their studs. The MATC group started work from the corner of America and Ransom streets. Berenyi smiles wryly, "Ironic, no?" After a week of labor, the Madison contingent had gutted 10 homes. Some of the homeowners were on hand to express their gratitude. "This was a real eye-opening experience," says Berenyi. "[The students] got a lot out of that and being appreciated that way. And at the same time they were thinking, 'Wow, we're barely doing anything.'"
A couple months later, Berenyi's friend Mary Young joined a smaller group led by Berenyi for a follow-up trip. With another friend, Marta Nodarse, Young drove tools and supplies down in Berenyi's truck, while the rest of the group flew in. When they arrived, they met a new challenge: bureaucracy. "ACORN would give you a broken shovel, and 50 of us would share it," says Berenyi.
FEMA had moved out two weeks before, and a church that had agreed to house the volunteers rescinded the offer when they found out they were students. Berenyi and company found a cheap hotel catering to volunteers, but then stood in line at ACORN waiting for an assignment. Instructions sent three groups to one place. "At a house of 900 square feet, 20 people on top of each other." Berenyi lost patience. That's the moment she became a renegade volunteer.
The group headed to where Berenyi had worked the last trip, the home of matriarch Billie McCall, where they were greeted like family. Another neighborhood resident suggested the volunteers gut his aunt's house, and the work began immediately. Says Young, "By the end of the day, there were people coming to the house who remembered Allie from before, and they asked, 'Can you come help us?'" The success of that trip convinced Berenyi and Young that it was better to go renegade.
By Christmas of 2006, they were back in New Orleans again, joined by Berenyi's partner Miche Llanas and four others as they continued working on the McCall home. Llanas is no stranger to helping out. "I was raised Catholic, so volunteering has always been a part of my life. From the time when I was young, I was involved with soup kitchens and that sort of thing. We were raised to believe that's just what you do."
Berenyi comes at this work from a different angle. "My parents were totally the opposite. 'Everybody, individuals, take care of yourselves.' And I think I've come to where I have this need to prove that that is not the way. You can actually help each other out."
The three of them talk about volunteering the way adventure sports enthusiasts speak about the next adrenaline challenge. Part of the experience is getting out of the "comfort zone" by leaving the familiar territories of home and the Midwest and getting to know people they might not come in contact with in everyday life.
Volunteering breaks through those differences, and the comfort zone gets a little larger. The neighborhood at America and Ransom now extends to Madison. "These are families that have pulled together and actually become closer because of the
situation," says Young. The trips are about building bridges more than houses - she doesn't understand the occasional comments that question why she would spend time in New Orleans and what she hoped to accomplish.
For her, the circle of family is wider. "These are fellow Americans. We have a disconnect for a lot of humanity. The whole issue of Iraq as well, that we're disconnected from that situation. Philosophically, what are we doing to our fellow human beings?"
"This is a great connection. This is how we get less afraid of who are neighbors are and people who are different from us," says Young.
Llanas sees the benefits often being more on the side of the volunteers: "I know we raised this house a foot, and this was a necessary thing for this family to get their insurance and continue with their lives. But I think the experience really solidified that feeling of 'Okay, this is something I want to be a more regular part of my life.' Just being part of that trip has helped us step up and continue the work." Another member of the trip subsequently joined AmeriCorps and was stationed in Mississippi.
Not long after the New Orleans trips, Berenyi went farther south to Oaxaca, Mexico, to find herself out of her comfort zone. She had gone to learn Spanish, but before long she stumbled onto a project.
She found herself in a "politically charged situation" as she chatted with residents and teachers about what things were like in the schools - discovering there was a teacher's strike going on, drawing protesting educators from around the state.
One particular teacher had come from the village of El Vigia, eight hours away. Berenyi was curious about the sorts of things the school needed and made an appointment to visit. There, she found a small country school with one of the buildings "perilously close to collapsing."
Hammer in hand, Berenyi found a lot of local support and went about constructing a computer room and library. Before long, she had other volunteers coming from the Madison area. When Berenyi and Llanas had a commitment ceremony there this past summer, 15 other friends came down and were initiated into the growing project: "None of these folks would have known about this area [otherwise], and they definitely would not have gone had we not made arrangements for them to get there."
Having people see the bare mattresses that kids sleep on in the dorms (some students must travel far to get to school and so stay there throughout the school week) and the shortage of bed sheets and mosquito netting helps them to visualize how easily they can organize some kind of drive to better equip the facilities, and thus the network of volunteers, ideas and donations expands.
The group plans to continue the project in El Vigia, but it is clear that out-of-pocket money can only go so far. Llanas, who recently left her state job where she worked on infectious disease education, is trying to form a nonprofit organization called Wider Circle. The renegade volunteers would like to find a way to make projects like the one in Mexico sustainable through formalizing the donation process, and are also thinking about how to link volunteers to the project.
Regardless, their commitment continues to grow. Berenyi is planning more trips to Mexico, and she still has plans for New Orleans. "My fantasy would be to start at that corner and work our way out. I need a year. I feel like I could do something really good in a year." Young foresees herself continuing to play a part in Berenyi's renegade volunteering. "Allie calls me up and says, 'We're going to dig with a pickax and haul dirt with a wheelbarrow with a flat.' I'm there!"
For more info or to help or volunteer, contact Miche Llanas at WiderCircle@gmail.com or call 608-577-4396