Written By Jerry Deal.
Standing in a crowd of more than 60,000 at the Coachella Music Festival last month, actor Sean Penn took the stage and invited anyone willing and able to join him and a fleet of biodiesel buses. The mission: To actively participate in causes across the country with the end destination being the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. The only sure things organizers could offer were food and a place to pitch a tent.My flatmate, Kristofer Barins, and I could not come up with a good reason not to go -he had just been approved for a week’s vacation, which he planned to spend relaxing at home on Twin Peaks, and I had just been laid off from my job. So the two of us signed up along with 150 other music revelers, rock star glitterati, an amazing documentary crew, and the most incredible individuals on the planet. On April 28 our friends drove us to the Coachella clock tower where the people who signed up for the trip met and hand-painted one of the busses. Penn, cast as Harvey Milk in the forthcoming biopic on the late gay politician’s life, introduced AIDS quilt founder Cleve Jones, whom he had befriended as a consultant to the Milk movie. Penn had called Jones just 12 days prior to help organize this endeavor. Heaving a sigh and saying goodbye, we embarked onto a journey of a lifetime. Our first stop was in Tuscan, Arizona where we joined up with the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation (www.SAAF.org) and participated in a march to raise awareness for AIDS. The caravan heard from speakers with SAAF and the local LGBT community about prevention and living with HIV/AIDS. For some, this was the first time they had ever met an HIV-positive person. We then made our way to Austin, Texas, where the caravan separated into numerous groups to learn about and work on environmental projects. Some went with contractors and learned about green buildings and communities. I was with a group that entered the Barton Creek Green Belt, a giant park and aquifer in the heart of the city, where I got my hands dirty crawling through the forest removing invasive non-indigenous plants. Sweaty and stinky, we made our way to Texas’ capitol for May Day; a day to recognize labor laws. We joined 700 others for an undocumented immigrant workers rights rally and marched through Austin to City Hall. The next day we found ourselves just south of Houston in a community surrounded by oil refineries. A community with refineries literally 100 feet from schoolyards. A community where children are 54 percent more likely to be diagnosed with leukemia and heart problems due to air pollution. There we spent time cleaning up the streets by removing garbage and then we helped organize a bone marrow drive with the 13-year-old founder of www.DrivingForDonors.com. The trip had been fun so far, getting to know everyone while camping out in places such as the Crazy Horse RV Park or the campground outside of Houston that no one realized was surrounded by a lake until the sun came up. Luckily I got a chance for a little skinny-dipping before breakfast. The caravan was made up of people from around the globe, including Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Sweden, and Spain as well as the United States. Finally, late Friday we set up camp in the back yard of a Baptist church surrounded by barbed wire fence in New Orleans. We were welcomed with great food from the congregation and one hell of a thunderstorm. Thank God us gays could pitch a tent! The first day in New Orleans we made our way through the Lower Ninth Ward. Three years after Katrina hit, it looks as though it happened yesterday. There are homes piled on top of each other that had been washed off of their foundations. The infamous FEMA trailers sit parked in front of homes without roofs or frames that are of an unintentional rhombus nature. We met up with the Common Ground Relief organization and were able to really get our hands dirty in the community. I helped build a wooden walkway for an elderly woman to get from the road to her house without walking through mud and water. I also worked hand-in-hand with amazing individuals from Common Ground in a community garden. Of all the organizations, Common Ground really impressed me the most. It is made up of volunteers from all over that come to their compound to work to get the community back up and running. Speaking with people and friends on a night out in the French Quarter, they all said of any of the organizations working to bring back New Orleans Common Ground has outshined them all. FEMA, insurance agencies, and the government are all now four-letter words to New Orleanians. Over the next couple days, Kris and I worked around the church building a garden and removing slabs of concrete that were once a sidewalk but were upended in the force of the floodwaters. Our last evening there while working we heard “Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Bang!” Then the squealing of tires. The two police officers hired by the caravan were right there on the street and yelled at us to run inside as they pulled their guns. A neighbor of the church had been shot three times in a drive-by shooting. We had been warned about such dangers but when it happens, it is a shock to the system. Through it all, the blood, sweat, and tears are my mementos of an amazing experience. Some amazing friendships were born and an inspiration that can’t be measured. I encourage you to do something. If you do have time please check out www.DoSomething.org and my personal favorite, www.
To contact the author, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.