Sunday, July 29, 2007

We can do "better"

I just took a shower.

It is 6:00 PM on Saturday July 28 and as I sit to type this I am just out of a long hot (global warming inducing hot) shower. While the layers of dirt were washed away and I no longer smell of mold, sweat, cat urine, and dirt, the shower was only partially successful. Why only a partial success? Because I still feel dirty. Because on demand I can conjure up the smell, and recall in vivid detail the squalor and the unspeakable living conditions that “John” is still living in.

You see, today was a BonaResponds’ Local Service day. Some volunteers painted, others fixed walls for new classrooms, I worked at John’s house.

His house is as bad as many of those BonaResponds worked on in the months immediately following Katrina. The difference was that John lives in Western New York, less than ten miles from the idyllic Bonaventure campus, and the third-world living conditions were not made by any weather disaster.

I knew it was going to be bad. We had received many emails from his guardian angels (two local residents who have been looking out for John). I had seen the yard and the outside of the house. I knew it was going to be bad. I really did. I knew it was going to smell inside. I knew it was going to be a lot of work. But like in Gulf after the Katrina, knowing what the conditions and experiencing them are two totally different things.

Arriving at John’s house the size and scope of the job hit me hard. A team four times our size would be needed to finish the job. I was overwhelmed. I was discouraged. How can we get this much done? Just the work outside would take a much larger team days to complete in the best of conditions. We had ten volunteers on this site and today.

But the longest journey begins with a single step, so we started. Some volunteers began on cutting back the bushes that were blocking much of the driveway. Others began the long process of picking up the pieces of the front porch that had collapsed and were strewn about ten feet below the front door. Others worked on the side of the house, removing a broken fence, a dangerous entrance way, and cutting back the tree that hung on the roof.

Guardian angel Greg however took the most challenging job. He went inside and began working with John on removing some of the accumulated piles that covered every inch of the house. As the only reasonably safe entrance was to the basement, the work began there. It was slow. There was standing water on the floor. It was quite dark. The ceiling was low with cobwebs hanging from many support beams. There was stuff everywhere: an old sofa covered in bugs and mold, food whose “use by” date was a decade ago, and scores of plastic garbage bags that held everything imaginable (indeed, a moment that absolutely floored me was as I picked up a bag to haul to the dumpster only to be severely reprimanded by John as it was not garbage but his laundry). Oh and it smelled. Oh did it smell.

I cheated and went back outside and worked with the other volunteers. The work was hard, dirty, and even a bit daunting (there was so much to do). But it was better than the being inside.

As the hours clicked past, significant improvement was made. Lynn and Mike had cleared the driveway. Larry, Mike, and Paul had cleared the side yard including the dangerous entrance way and hauled the metal fence away for recycling. Joann had helped everywhere and dealt with a neighbor who was upset about the dumpster placement.

But the real star of the day was still inside. Greg, who if the Vatican had any sense would be canonized tomorrow, had stayed inside. Clearing his way first through the basement, and then upstairs into the living area, this guardian angel persuaded John that things had to be thrown out and proceeded to fill countless bags to be hauled away. He had opened up some space to allow John to move about and to make the house somewhat more livable.

As the time approached to leave, group photos were taken and good bye’s exchanged. There was still almost an unimaginable amount of work to be done. But we had made a dent. The house still did not have properly working indoor plumbing. It was still an absolute mess. But it was better. It was cleaner. It was safer. John would be able to get along that much better. BonaResponds had made a positive contribution.

But back at home and fresh from the shower, the success is not on my mind. I am thinking that I was in his house for about an hour and yet even now miles away and after a long hot shower, I could not shake the smell or the vision of the deplorable living conditions. John, on the other hand, was living in the conditions day after day without the luxury of a shower.

Thus I was very glad that before leaving John’s I had spoken with his guardian angels about making his home part of our next local service day as well. It will give us another opportunity to help out a neighbor in need. We will never be able to make things perfect. But “better” we can do. We made things better today and will make them even better at our next local service day on September 8th.

Won't you join us?

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