The Defining Generation
Defining Human Rights
DEFINING HUMAN RIGHTS
My Brother's Keeper
WHILE I’ve never been much of a hobbyist--perhaps more for lack of time than lack of interest, one thing I have always enjoyed is collecting quotations. Over the years I have compiled thousands, categorizing them and sharing them with others. Despite the large size of my collection, I face little difficulty answering that common question, “What is your favorite quote?” It says simply:
may be one person in the world, but to one person you may be the world!”
I was raised the oldest child in a family of four children, one girl in a community of tens of thousands, and one child a world of billions. As a teenager I had pimples, long skinny legs, and long straight, ashen-blonde hair. I always felt very plain in appearance and was only an average student. I was shy although I did enjoy talking to people, especially small children, one on one. I would never have stood out even in a small group and grew up feeling personally rather inconsequential in the grander scheme of life.
After me was a sister, Melody, and a brother, Robert. My youngest brother Derrick was a “special” child; he was born mentally retarded. As I grew I watched him struggle to do even the simple things I took for granted. He didn’t walk until he was three years old and uttered his first words shortly after that. They were: “Jesus loves me,” which he said in a singsong kind of voice because we played the song often on our record player. As we grew up with Derrick however, as a family we never really noticed how different he was, though unfortunately other people not only noticed he was different, but for some reason received joy from pointing out his differences. They would imitate the way he spoke and acted. Derrick never seemed to notice how mean spirited some people could be. He always smiled and talked to everyone, “Hi, how are you?”
As the oldest child I worked with Derrick trying to teach him things he needed to know, and in caring for him first found my own personal importance in life. I noticed that he really liked my ventriloquist dummy, Danny. Whenever Danny would talk to Derrick he paid more attention to the lesson. It was because of his reaction to Danny that mom encouraged me to volunteer to do ventriloquism at Derrick’s school. In those days mentally retarded children didn’t go to public schools; they went to private schools especially suited to their unique needs.
In Derrick’s school I used Danny to teach good manners. Danny would sneeze and then I would remind him he should have covered his mouth. Danny became so alive to Derrick that soon he was blaming Danny for things he had done. One of my quotes notes: "If you have one child, you’re a parent, two or more kids, you’re a referee." Whenever one of us other older kids would get in trouble we could blame one of our siblings. Derrick was the youngest and so when asked why he colored the television screen with crayons (he wanted his black and white television to be in color too), Derrick simply said, “Danny did it.”
I felt especially responsible for Derrick. Whenever I would take him to the park or neighborhood swimming pool I would stand up to anyone who made fun of him. Though I was a little shy and insecure around groups of people, I was always somewhat opinionated and never had a problem standing up for the underdog.
On one occasion Melody and Robert took Derrick to a local creek. Soon they were running home crying, “Derrick’s been kidnapped.” A couple of older kids told them that they could not return home with Derrick until they came back with a small ransom. Mom and I went to the creek where a couple of boys were standing with my brother. Mom started to grab one of them and I looked at the other boy and was a little intimidated by his size. But he was “threatening” my brother so I took a deep breath to steady my nerves and went after him. It was amazing that while I was always afraid to fight someone who was bullying me, I seemed to find the courage needed when someone I loved was in trouble. The boys scattered and we took Derrick home, smiling as usual; he never seemed to know that there was a problem.
When I met and fell in love with Doug in 1974 he literally forced me out of my shell. Doug is one of those rare individuals who only seems happy when he is doing something for others--to an EXTREME! When I first met him he was working 100 miles away from my home in Missoula, Montana, and I only saw him on weekends. On those weekends however, Doug had commitments he intended to continue. Saturdays and Sundays he took his guitar and visited several local nursing homes to sing and preach. If I wanted to date him I had only one option--to fit into that schedule and accompany him. I wasn’t much of a singer, but I would often bring my new ventriloquist dummy, Otis, and walk around talking to the residents there. As long as I had Otis, I could talk to anyone. The residents would thank Doug for coming and also for bringing his daughter. He was 24 and I was 17, and the age difference was noticeable--though I didn't think it was to that extent.
Previously Doug wrote about our early efforts one Saturday each month to put together and present a program for children at a local church in Deer Lodge, Montana, after we were married. While we were doing those early programs Doug insisted I perform a ventriloquist skit each month. I was still shy and insecure around groups of people so Otis did most of the talking. When he was talking I didn’t feel that people were looking at me. The strangest thing is that since I began doing ventriloquism at the age of 12, I never really saw it as a talent. I guess I thought that if it was something I could do, it couldn’t be that great. In time I found myself rather comfortable performing with Otis in front of a crowd and soon had as big of a part in the dialogue as Otis had!
This led to the birth of the Share Family and our evangelistic work for 8 years. We lived in a bus that Doug converted into a home; I called it our Ghetto Winnebago. Our oldest child, Jennifer, started traveling with us at the age of 18 months and our oldest son, William, was born while we were on the road. Six days a week we would hold family crusades in churches, subsisting on donations from those in attendance.
In 1984 with two growing children, we at last settled down in Denver, Colorado, where we found employment as a manager and maintenance couple in a 32 unit apartment community. At first we thought that we would only settle down for a year in order to regroup and then start traveling again. Approximately a year later we learned I was pregnant again. With the upcoming birth of our third child, Douglas, going back on the road wasn’t really an option so we directed our efforts towards our new career as apartment managers.
As managers Doug and I received a small but comfortable salary and, more importantly, our rent and utilities were provided by our employer. We had a comfortable life and security that many of the people from whom I collected rent every month did not have. Sometimes my heart broke as I watched them struggle through financially difficult times and, I must confess, I was pretty much a “soft touch” for their excuses. I worked with them over time as much as my limited authority allowed when they got behind in rent. More than once I would go to the store to buy groceries or other needs, then have one of the maintenance men deliver them anonymously. Ironically, our concern for our residents helped them to survive tough times and succeed, and as a result the properties we managed experienced low turnover rates and high occupancy. We quickly gained a reputation for finding ways to “turn around” a struggling apartment complex.
That success led to larger properties, this time HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) subsidized properties--often referred to as “public housing” or “the projects.” In contrast to our earlier communities, most of the residents in the HUD properties were NOT hard working but poor people--most subsisted on Welfare and had done so all their lives. Though both Doug and I had been raised in poor families, both split by divorce and where Welfare benefits and subsidies had got the family through some lean years, it was hard to adjust to a society where Welfare was a way of life. In these apartment communities many of our residents believed it was the Government’s responsibility to take care of them. For Doug and I it was a challenge NOT to become piously self-righteous and tell those residents to “Pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and improve their lives.
In 1990 our company sent us from Denver to a large but struggling HUD property in Pueblo, 100 miles to the south. While I was not happy to move to Pueblo, the manager's unit there would provide us with an extra bedroom which was greatly needed since we had recently welcomed our fourth child, Tiffany, into the family.
As our hearts broke for the young boys and girls whose homes we managed, most of them without a father living in the home, we again began to reach out. Doug started a Cub Scout pack with the help of a couple of friends. He insisted that every boy that joined would immediately have a uniform, regardless of whether or not his mother could afford it, so that each boy would have a sense of belonging. Our company, recognizing the importance of what we were doing, established a special petty cash fund to help with that effort.
Doug bought all of the boys a pocket knife and taught them how to use it safely. Sometimes his boss chided him, "We're trying to get weapons OUT of the projects, and then you go and give them to every kid in the place." Later he even enrolled all of his boys in a Hunter Safety Course, teaching them to shoot. Every one of his scouts earned their Colorado Hunter Safety Course certificate.
Drawing on his military background Doug also taught the kids how to build a rope bridge, a teambuilding project they all took pride in. But ever one to go to the extreme, within a few months he was also teaching them how to tie a rope around their waist, a Swiss Seat. He taught them rappelling, starting them on a 12' plywood incline, but soon thereafter the adults would gather in the parking lot to watch their children rappelling from the second story roofs of the apartment buildings.
At the same time I organized a club for the girls. After examining several programs, I finally settled on the curriculum from the "Learning For Life" extension of the Boy Scout program. I taught the girls traditional women's skills; cooking, sewing, crocheting, many of which attracted the attention of adult women in our community, and soon the girls and their mothers were engaged in projects together. At the same time the girls became interested in the exciting things the boys were doing, and Doug eagerly welcomed them to join in. At age 6 our youngest daughter, along with her friends, was rappelling from second-story rooftops and even from 50' cliffs at the nearby Pueblo reservoir.
Doug and I have always believed that giving to others is a critical part of growing and maturing in life. With that philosophy in mind we taught our scouts and clubbers, boys and girls who themselves had very little, how to find ways to give back and to serve others. One year on Thanksgiving we asked our company to purchase 30 turkeys and approached the various vendors who did business with us to donate other food supplies. The day before Thanksgiving we assembled our kids to work throughout the day and all night long in shifts, preparing hundreds of Thanksgiving Day dinners to feet the entire apartment community. The next day when the adult residents came into our community room for dinner, the children waited the tables, served the food, and later did the dishes.
As an added feature, one week before Thanksgiving we got our local newspaper to announce that free Thanksgiving Day dinners would be delivered to all elderly and other Pueblo shut-ins upon request. When calls came in we logged the names and addresses, creating a city-wide map for deliveries. In the kitchen the boys and girls packaged meals to go and, throughout the morning several police cars pulled up to load the back seat with the prepared dinners. Several of our children made their first ride in a police car while helping a uniformed officer deliver dinner to a needy person. One resident jokingly noted, "We've got kids all over the place, lots of noise, and cops all over the place--and there hasn't even been a shooting!"
It was a long 24-hour period that literally wore the kids out, but their broad smiles and loud laughter told us it was a positive experience and a valuable learning lesson for them. They learned the joy of helping, of reaching out to others, and their eyes glowed with pride and a deep sense of self-satisfaction. That night many of them saw their own faces on TV news broadcasts, not as kids from the projects who had got into trouble, but as a community of young boys and girls who achieved something noble.
We really came to love the boys and girls in our apartment community, most of whom never knew what it was to have a father-figure or loose change to buy an ice cream cone. In May of 1991 Doug learned that he could rent the carnival rides at our City Park for a private party for a modest amount. During regular hours the rides cost a modest 25 cents, but at that time a single mother with two children received $386 per month in Welfare benefits, one third of which was paid for rent and utilities. Even with $300 - $400 per month in food stamps, there was little left over for recreation and the 25-cent rides could be prohibitive.
Doug convinced our property owners to fund a community day at the park and for me it was personally fulfilling to watch the happy, smiling faces of those poor children as they rode attraction after attraction without having to pay a fee or wait in a line. Thinking of the many other poor children in Pueblo, that night I asked Doug, "What would happen if we tried to rent the park for a whole day, and made it free to all the children of Pueblo?" Doug encourage me to look into it, promising we'd find the money somehow.
The next day I was at the City Park office as Jodi Lane, the recreation director, placed a call to Tony Langoni, director of the City Park complex. "I've got this crazy lady in my office," she told him, "that wants to rent the City Park Rides for a whole day and then open it up to all the kids in Pueblo."
"What a wonderful idea," Tony responded. "Send her in to see me." After a brief introduction during which I laid out my idea Tony said, "Why don't you rent the zoo for the day as well, and make it free too." I replied that we couldn't afford that. "Then go out and get some of the businesses to help you," he advised. Suddenly our scope was expanded far beyond what we had ever expected. The day we selected for that first free, family day at the park was July 4, 1992.
On that day more than 7,000 people showed up to enjoy the zoo, the carnival rides, balloons, face painting, and more, all at a price they could afford. The only thing that cost money were the hot dogs and cokes; each was priced at a dime. We even managed to get a local charter company to donate three busses that throughout the day, ran a city-wide route to transport families without transportation. In fact for those very families we had rented, at a deep discount, two limousines to make trip after trip around the road that skirted the facility; for the first time in their young lives kids from families too poor to own a car got to briefly ride in a limousine. I'll never forget the smiling face of one small boy who leaned out the back window of the big, black luxury car to call out to passers-by, "Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?"
The success of that first
event demanded a sequel and as Doug and I "went back to the drawing
board" we sought for a way to fill the one void missing from the
first event--a patriotic emphasis. Soon we learned that Pueblo was the
hometown of four living recipients of the Medal of Honor, at the time more
than any city in America.*
We invited all four of them, now living in other cities around the nation,
to return for a reunion in Pueblo to speak to and inspire our kids. On
July 4, 1993, they and four of their fellow recipients joined us in City
Park for another day of free rides and activities, sharing their words of
inspiration in a moving patriotic assembly. In honor of their return and
Meanwhile, in our second event Doug had again gone overboard as he was always inclined to do, and despite the generosity of local businesses he over-extended our personal finances and we spent the next two years trying to pay off bills. In 1994 we had a smaller, more low keyed "Family Funshine Day" while planning to return in 1995 bigger and better than ever.
On April 19, 1995, we watched the television in horror as the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City suffered the bomb blast that killed 168 Americans and injured 853. As we watched the dedicated service of the rescue workers we realized we were witnessing the acts of a new generation of heroes. At the time we had scheduled 18 Medal of Honor recipients to join us for another patriotic day at the park and, in the weeks that followed we sent out an invitation to the heroes of Oklahoma City to join them. They came, representing police, fire, EMTs, FEMA, and chaplains. Many were quickly recognizable by our local children who had watched on TV as EMT Lieutenant Tammy Eardman lifted the frail body of the child of former congressional candidate Dan Webber from the arms of a police officer, or as Police Chaplain Jack Poe did his best to provide words of faith and comfort in the aftermath of that tragedy.
Pueblo opened its heart and welcomed heroes, young and old, in honor of their service. On Independence Day that year the flag was raised from half-staff in Oklahoma City for the first time since the tragedy. The city's Police Chief Sam Gonzales, who had directed the rescue effort, missed that event--he was in Pueblo, Colorado, with sixteen fellow rescue workers as they were honored by America's greatest war heroes. Through it all, an emotional 3-day celebration of service, sacrifice, and valor, it was the young of Pueblo who benefited the most.
In 1996 we scaled back our Independence Day at the Park somewhat in order to accommodate a visit by sixteen Medal of Honor recipients during the school year. In one day they spoke patriotic words of service and duty to 30,000 Pueblo youths during 53 assemblies county-wide that involved hundreds of civic leaders and citizens of our community. Entertainer Wayne Newton accepted our invitation to speak, flying in at his own expense and humbly deferring to the Medal of Honor recipients in his most captivating speech. He is and remains one of those truly patriotic Americans Doug and I admire most.
Bob Rawlings, publisher of our local paper and an intense patriot and World War II veteran simultaneously initiated efforts to erect a memorial to Pueblo's four Medal of Honor recipients at our newly-constructed Convention Center. In 1997 an indoor display featuring the uniforms of our local heroes, adorned with the Medal of Honor, was unveiled. Two years later large signs were erected on Interstate 25 at the north and south approaches to our city, proudly proclaiming "Pueblo - Home Of Heroes." In 2000 The Congressional Medal of Honor Society held their annual convention in our small town, bringing most of those living heroes to speak to our children. At that event Mr. Rawlings' dream was unveiled, becoming one of only FOUR National Medal of Honor Memorials.
For the young girl who only four decades earlier had felt insecure and inconsequential in the master plan of life it was a heady moment. I had been privileged to do many things, touch many lives in a positive manner, and even had fulfilled a substantial role in renaming our city and reinforcing an already admirable sense of patriotism and service in our community. Surprised in how far I had come it was nevertheless an easy matter for me to look back with self-satisfaction and say, "I've done my part. Now maybe I can get on with a normal life." Little did I know that larger challenges lay only five years into the future.
On September 28, 2005, Doug and I watched with great interest, news reports of a growing storm in the Gulf of Mexico that seemed headed on a collision course with the city of New Orleans. Looking grim, Doug remarked, "I've got a nasty feeling about this. I'm afraid we could be looking at the greatest natural disaster that has ever hit our country." While the eternal optimist--show him a cloud and he'll find the rainbow--Doug has always had an uncanny and usually accurate foreboding of trouble.
The following night Doug sat up all night, glued to the television while I at last became tired and went to bed. On the morning of September 29 I awoke to good news. "Thank God, I was wrong," Doug exclaimed. Katrina hit New Orleans pretty bad, but they survived. In the early morning we watched a newsman reporting from the French Quarter where the streets were wet but not flooded, while he took shelter beneath an umbrella. We both breathed a premature collective sigh of relief.
Before noon the levies were breached and torrents of seawater flooded the city, killing hundreds, stranding thousands under desperate circumstances, and wiping out homes to leave tens of thousands homeless, penniless, and with no hope for the future. Doug and I watched helplessly for hours, mesmerized by the tragic images on the television screen and wracked by the frustration of knowing we should do something to help while confronting the reality that there was nothing we could do. For two days I couldn't get Doug off the couch--he simply sat there dozing off from time to time but always coming back to watch the unfolding tragedy. Looking into his eyes I saw that for the first time since 1972 he was suffering from "flashbacks," reliving a time when in a foreign land he had watched in sadness as innocent people were robbed of all they possessed by the war in Vietnam. Reverting to his days in the Army he said, "Damn it! Somebody needs to step up and show some leadership. This is unprecedented, there is no S.O.P. (military jargon for Standard Operating Procedures). It's time for somebody to throw out the book, cut through the red tape, improvise, and do what needs to be done for those poor people."
On Wednesday, the last day of August and two days after the storm hit, we watched as huddled masses waved in vain for help as they lay stranded on a bridge. The scenes from New Orleans certainly did not look like the United States--they looked even worse in fact, than the scenes of many third world countries. Our hearts, as did those of millions of compassionate Americans, yearned to help. The television said, "Send money," but we didn't have any money. So it seemed that like so many other Americans, there was nothing we could do.
At last that night I convinced Doug to come to bed, but it was a futile effort to get him to rest. Finally irritated by his constant tossing and turning I growled, "Go ahead and get up and go get your FOX (TV) fix!"
"Honey," he said, "I've got an idea!"
"Oh no, here we go again," I thought silently, all too accustomed to Doug's ideas.
"Pam," he continued in the darkness of our bedroom, "there are hundreds of vacant homes here in Pueblo. A lot of them have been up for rent for months. Let's go out and raise the money to rent some of them for six months, and then offer them free of charge to some of the families down there. I think we could easily raise enough to bring 20 families to Pueblo."
There it was and I
swallowed hard. Doug has NEVER done anything in moderation. I said,
"There's already a lot of our own people in
Estimating that rent for a modest but nice home would run about $600 a month, Doug was up at the crack of dawn and making phone calls. Within two hours he had raised enough pledges to cover three months rent with prospects for more. Then he was off to the offices of our local newspaper where, due to our previous efforts, we had good friends. I can't help but believe that Chieftain Promotions Manager Paulette Stuart, who listened intently and then invited Jane Rawlings, daughter and assistant to the Publisher in to hear Doug plan to help ONE family, didn't realize even then what they were getting into. Like me they had come to love Doug and believe in him, even while recognizing and having experienced his tendency to excess. That irritating idiosyncrasy aside, we all believed in his dream and went to work to make it happen.
While Doug was in his meeting at the Chieftain I was on the telephone, doing my own part to make this happen. I called the local phone company to request donated telephone service for a family from New Orleans for six months. Qwest quickly volunteered to donate a cell phone with unlimited service…"At a time like this with families scattered we don't want them to worry about overages. Furthermore, if you relocate more than one family, we'll donate up to SIX phones, each for six months." A call to Comcast, our cable TV provider resulted in the same, not only the promise of free cable TV and Internet service for six months, but a willingness to extend that to up to SIX households if we brought in more than one family." When I contacted Pueblo Disposal, a smaller company that served the trash removal need of our citizens, they not only excitedly joined us by offering 6 months of free service, but again voluntarily offered to do so for up to 6 people if we brought in additional families. This time is wasn't Doug's impulsive "big ideas" but the good heart of our local businesses that were pushing us ever closer to a bigger job than we anticipated.
On Friday morning, just four days after the storm, the headline in the Pueblo Chieftain read "Anarchy in New Orleans" and beneath it ran a photo of four young black men carrying a woman who had fainted at the Super Dome. To the side was a companion article stating: "Officials use parking lot autopsies to deal with the dead--Refrigerated trucks serve as makeshift morgues along Mississippi coast." At the bottom of the front page was another article headlined: "Locals offer home to flood refugees" with a sub-title noting "Doug Sterner wants cities to each provide housing rent-free for a Gulf Coast refugee family for six months."
As early as 6 a.m. our phone started ringing, and it literally did not stop for the next three days. Most of the phone calls were basically the same, "I want to help but I don't have any money to give. I do have a couch/bed/dresser in my basement I'd like to give however, if it will help." Others offered to donate food, clothing, toys, and more. Local medical clinics offered services and non-prescription medical supplies, grocery stores bagged and donated food for the cause. We had already selected and agreed to pay rent for one house, a large four bedroom dwelling that belonged to Doug's friend Delbert Schmeling (you'll meet Delbert in a later chapter), but the concept had taken hold and we were suddenly inundated with calls to say, "I have a home up for rent that I'm willing to donate, rent-free for six months, to a family displaced by the Hurricane." Phil Malouff, the City Attorney for neighboring La Junta and a personal friend called to say, "We've got two homes furnished and ready to go, rent free for six months. You bring us two families and when they get here their cupboards will be stocked with groceries, each will get a $500 check to cover incidentals, and a local businessman has even offered to give each family a car." The package further included a waiting job for the head of household.
On Saturday the evacuation
efforts began in Louisiana as tens of thousands of desperate and homeless
victims began the trek to the Astro Dome in Houston. In Pueblo, Colorado,
America's Home of Heroes, eager young teens were going in multiple
directions to clean and make ready more than a half-dozen homes or
apartments. Volunteer drivers made repeated trips to our small garage to
load beds, sofa's, TVs, and more to furnish the dwellings. Other teams
sorted through donated foods, stocking cupboards of now-empty units that
would soon give hope to a family that had lost everything. At the desk in
the bedroom Doug has converted to an office in our home, he ran the entire
operation that included hundreds of volunteers with military efficiency.
His first message to all new volunteers however was always the same, based
upon the lesson he had often learned the hard way: No
good deed goes unpunished!
"Don't do this if you want to be the good guy," he would announce with firm conviction. "Nobody has ever done anything like this before, which means we're going to screw up some things--make mistakes. Today's hero is tomorrow's scapegoat and when the immediate crisis blows over those mistakes will be magnified, and that is what people will remember you for. There is only one good reason to do this, because our brothers and sisters need our help. That must be your only motivation."
The unbelievable generosity of Pueblo's citizens soon filled our garage to the rafters, spilling out into the driveway. Navigating our living room was like running an obstacle course, and at all hours young people pulled in to load up a truck to prepare a home, even while more donations poured in. We needed a larger, centralized warehouse, and I went to work on that project. A large building at the nearby State Fairgrounds was offered, and soon we were stockpiling goods there by the truckload. While it was fairly simple to stock homes with furniture and groceries, without knowing the family makeup of any potential families coming in, there was no way to plan for clothing or other specialized needs. To address the problem I converted the warehouse into not only a place of storage but into a large supermarket containing virtually anything you could find in the national chains except for a cash register. Julie Kuhl, a friend from church, volunteered to organize and operate it. Over the following month she put in hundreds of hours from early morning to late evening. It was my plan that when families arrived they would be shown to the store at the Fairgrounds where, both then and in the weeks that followed, they could come and freely shop for the things that they needed. Doug called it K-mart, for Katrina Mart, and even designed a sign to that effect that looked quite similar to that of its namesake.
Days later when the first families arrived in Pueblo they were met and greeted at our church by a support team including volunteer health professionals, teachers, social workers, and others. Among those who greeting the first caravan from Louisiana was our County Sheriff, Dan Corsentino, a personal friend. Watching the effort he came over to congratulate us and advise that if we needed anything to let him know. Fifteen minutes later, thinking of the bundles of donated clothes that needed to be sorted, cleaned, and prepared for the Katrina Store I walked back to him. "Dan," I said, "I've thought of something. We've got all these clothes, and maybe half of them really aren't in a shape to give to others. Furthermore, they all need to be laundered and folded. Is there any chance you could have your inmates do that?"
"Done!" Dan said firmly. From that day forward, every morning a work crew of minimum security inmates arrived at the Katrina Mart to pick up piles of clothes, linens, towels, and other cloth goods. By van they transported these to the county jail where volunteer inmates sorted out the trash and discarded it, laundered the rest, and returned it to us in the evening for placement on shelves or to be hung on hangers.
Seven days after the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast, in Pueblo, Colorado, and surrounding small towns there were more than a dozen homes and apartments ready for occupancy, each for from 6 to 12 months during which all rent and utilities were donated. The real problem became locating and arranging for a family to inhabit them. In a call to one government shelter Doug was told, "We're not releasing any refugees at this time."
"What are they? Are they refugees or PRISONERS?" Doug exploded. In Pueblo the volunteers, city leaders, media, and others were becoming anxious. Though only little more than a week had passed since the disaster struck, homes were ready and in place within days. Those who had worked so hard around the clock saw the homeless living in parking lots, shelters, and the Astro Dome on television newscasts and wondered why they weren't flocking north to build new lives in the homes we had worked so hard to prepare. Our good intentions were nearly derailed by bureaucratic policies and red tape.
Like the good NCO Doug had been before decades before, he began to cut through that red tape to improvise. "Nothing good has ever been accomplished by one person alone," he has always said. Now he began building a network of partners, former Special Forces Vietnam Veteran Robert Noe and his with Kathy in Louisiana began providing leads. His many friends in media, covering the events on scene, began tipping him to needs. He joined forces with Angel Flights, a group of volunteer pilots and through the Internet meet Todd Clevenger, a Denver businessman who was poised to drive to Louisiana and return with caravans of people needing help. At one point he even sent Andee Ames, a young lady from our church and a critical team leader, along with Reverend Keith Colvin of Pueblo West and head of the Pueblo N.A.A.C.P. to work in the Astro Dome in Houston. Though they were wearing official passes, in one interesting incident the two were almost arrested.
On Wednesday evening,
September 7, the first caravan arrived from Louisiana after a 24-hour trip
under the guidance of Todd Clevenger. En route two families were greeted
in La Junta and taken to their new homes by Phil Malouff, then the convoy
drove on to
The news reports of that first success immediately overwhelmed us with renewed offers, especially in nearby Colorado Springs where Pueblo's example became a model for others. Homes continued to be offered in Pueblo, surrounding cities, and as far away as New Mexico, Wyoming, Utah and Kansas. The Noes, as well as volunteers in the shelters we coordinated with in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, were able to bring in families needing homes, take them online, and allow them to watch the news reports coming out of Pueblo. For people who had nothing, and for whom the offers extended in Pueblo seemed too good to be true, those video reports provided hope and reassurance and the effort continued to mount.
Caught up in the moment, Doug continued to approach the growing program with his typical naïve enthusiasm. One day he told me, "A psychologist from ***** just called. They have a home for six, furnished and rent-free for a year. It even comes with a car for which the insurance will also be paid for a year."
The city was a nearby community with something of a reputation for racial prejudice, perhaps largely unjust but it was known to number a considerable number of White Supremacist in or near the city. "Did you tell him that their family will probably be Black?" I asked.
"Hell no," Doug exploded. "If I have to tell them what color the person is who needs their help, I don't even want to work with them."
At last I convinced Doug that prudence dictated that he, at least for the sake of the family being relocated, pass on that information. The good doctor replied, "We figured that--in fact we hoped they would be Black. Our church stands ready to support them any way we can. Our city is changing, getting better, and we really believe that adopting a Katrina family will further help us change." It did indeed turn out to be a positive experience for all involved.
Such matters were not the least of Doug's impractical and pragmatic activities, and more than once I had to rise to his defense. "I hope Doug is getting FEMA numbers on all these people before he brings them in," one government official told me on the phone one day.
"Oh yes, he is," I lied while remembering what Doug had said in his own defense: "What would have happened in the story Jesus once told if the Samaritan, finding a man broken and bloody along the road when he fell among thieves had first said, 'Do you have a FEMA number? I can't help you if you don't.'"
Sal Pace, District Director for our Congressman, got caught up in the program and became one of our greatest allies. "John (the Congressman), told our whole staff to get behind you and cover your backside," he said. "You guys do your work and we'll do the paperwork." It was just one more expansion of an incredible network of volunteers. By Friday, September 9, while relief efforts in the Gulf continued to be tied up in bureaucratic red tape, more than a dozen families displaced by the disaster were now living in Pueblo, and at least that many in nearby towns. Their homes were clean and comfortable, they had telephones and television, their children were in school, and their future was secure for the next 6 to 12 months. On that day Congressman John Salazar personally came to Pueblo, greeting half-a-dozen of these families that had traveled north together for their first reunion over lunch courtesy of Pueblo Community College where Doug worked as an instructor. (During the relief effort John Eberwein, one of his fellow instructors, did double-duty to cover his classes and allow him to devote all his time and attention to the work of helping needy families.)
That day marked our youngest daughter's 16th birthday, normally a milestone and important moment in a young girl's life. Tiffany stoically accepted the fact that on this birthday there would be no celebration for her--mom and dad had more important work to do--in fact, Tiffany herself had to rush back to man the Katrina Mart. Doug was hoarse from working nearly 24-hours a day for nearly a week, and could hardly speak, though he did acknowledge Tiffany and announced that it was her birthday. Congressman Salazar stepped forward to lead the group in a birthday song that, though it was her only birthday present on that day, became one of her most memorable ones.
By the end of the month we had relocated 17 families in Pueblo, three shy of Doug's original dream. Partnering with others however, we were ultimately involved in relocating more than 120 families in and around Pueblo and, indirectly, aided in finding homes for nearly 1,500 families throughout Colorado and nearby states. But knowing when to QUIT is equally as important as knowing when to START, and helping people does not mean subsequently micro-managing their lives. Human nature prompts us to sometimes change from being helpers to becoming nuisances. Our mission had been to give people with no hope new options. Given new opportunities, the time came towards the end of the month when we knew it was time to back off and give our adopted families the chance to make their own decisions, for the first time since the hurricane, and start rebuilding their lives.
POSADA, a local relief agency that had been doing this work locally for decades before Katrina, and who would continue it long after that tragedy was supplanted by future cases of human suffering, were the professionals. From day-one they had been our salvation, offering us both assistance and advice, partnering with us in every way that they could. Albeit with some sadness, the Home Of Heroes Katrina Relocation Program was dismantled and we tried to return to what little normalcy remained for us at home. It was hard, but it was the right thing to do.
I would never have dreamed that one day I would participate in, or even that I was remotely capable of being a part of a program so wonderful as were those dark days in September 2005. The one thing that Doug and I agree on totally is that those weeks when we became part of a brotherhood far beyond our community were the defining weeks of our lives. Indeed afterward, there came those who found and highlighted our mistakes, but we were content to realize that we had done our best. We were also humbled and amazed by the team of volunteers from our own and surrounding communities that rose to the challenge of doing the impossible. From day one they had all wanted to help. Our own small part had consisted primarily of showing them how.
Perhaps nothing better illustrates the success of that month than yet another of those quotes from my collection. Margaret Mead once reminded us: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
* In 1993 there were only 204 living recipients of our Nation's highest military award.
The Defining Generation: Copyright © 2006 by Doug and Pam Sterner
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