The Knight Center of Journalism of the Americas quoted me in their column today. Check it out at the link below: (if the link’s not hot, you may have to copy and paste it in your browser)
One Katrina lesson resonates for me beyond everything else — the importance of advocacy, for oneself and others.
In the dire circumstances of the Cajundome on Friday, Sept. 2, 2005, I was walking in the midst of thousands of people with abandoned looks in their eyes. I was on my way to see Laura Bush when a woman ran up to me and gently grabbed my arm. Minutes earlier, she had stepped off a bus from New Orleans.
“I’ve lost my baby,” Quiana Ruffin said.
At that point, I was almost late to see the First Lady, but when another mother tells you she’s lost her baby, there is no alternative response.
You listen and try to help.
“What do you mean you’ve lost your baby?” I asked.
She explained that she had given birth in New Orleans the day Katrina hit. The hospital advised her to go home and they would keep the baby. She did.
In the madness after Katrina, the hospital ended up evacuating infants. After the young mother fought elements to get back to the hospital, her baby wasn’t there. An official there told her the baby should be at one of six possible hospitals across Louisiana.
The young mother then opened her purse and pulled out a tiny, tattered piece of paper showing the names of hospitals in Shreveport, Alexandria, Baton Rouge, Monroe and Lafayette.
“We’ve called them all. None of them have him. My husband is walking to the Lafayette hospitals now to check again,” she said.
I took a deep breath and headed toward the Red Cross table.
“I’ve already been there,” she said. “They don’t know where he is and don’t know what else to do to help me.”
I approached the table anyway. I explained the story to the volunteer who immediately started making phone calls on our behalf.
I was sure what I had done, according to some journalism colleagues, had crossed a line, but I didn’t care. Journalists aren’t supposed to become part of the story they’re covering. However, I believe responsible journalists should advocate for people who can’t or don’t know how to advocate for themselves. I’d do it again if need be.
At that point, I was almost hopeful – something I hadn’t felt in a while. I went on inside for my Laura Bush assignment.
About an hour later, I went back to the Red Cross table. The young mother saw me approaching and threw herself on me, tears streaming down her face.
“Thank you. Thank you. We found him. He’s in Baton Rouge,” she said. “I had called the hospital already. They told me they didn’t have him, but they do.”
She and her husband, Weldon Ruffin, who had just learned the news after walking to three Lafayette hospitals, smothered me in hugs.
When I heard someone volunteer to take them to Baton Rouge to pick up their baby, I left in peace.
Weldon Ruffin Jr. turns five today. I wonder where he is and what he knows of the first week of his life. And, yes, I am trying to find him but no luck as of yet.
The experience taught me how some people’s voices are heard, while others are not. Along with several Red Cross volunteers, I asked the same people the same questions the mother asked.
The volunteers and I got answers and action.
She did not.
Understanding that discrepancy would take us all a long way toward understanding how many of the horrors of Katrina occurred.
Back in college, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening conjured a vivid picture of Grand Isle for me. Other than the imagery, the required reading during my first semester away at university was way too much for me to wrap my head around.
Since then, visiting Grand Isle has been on my to-do list.
After the April BP oil blowout and subsequent disaster, images of Grand Isle did not resemble the ones Chopin’s landmark novel created, but I wanted to see for myself.
So, last week, my daughters and I drove down to Grand Isle with Stacey Scarce, a Lafayette-based naturalist.
Once on La. 1 and headed south, we were immersed in quintessential Louisiana. Kate Chopin would have been proud.
As we crossed the giant bridge to Grand Isle, Scarce explained how much of the water and marsh we saw used to be land. The sight was a visible wake-up call for the loss of land along the Louisiana coastline.
On Grand Isle, homemade signs made an impact. “Welcome to Grand Oil, home of the World’s Largest oil spill,” one read. SpongeBob Squarepants inspired another series of five signs, with sentiments like, “Small people matter too,” and “(Don’t) Wish you were here.”
A few hundred yards down the road from the SpongeBob signs, we stopped at a piece of weathered plywood, with the words “Beach Closed” in black spray paint. A man stood under a small, portable sun shelter, guarding the beach entrance. He explained that the beach, known as Zone 3, was actually open – even though the sign said otherwise. He said he expected Zone 4 to open soon. Workers were cleaning the beach starting closest to bridge connecting the island to the mainland (from west to east). Looking eastward, we could see clusters of workers shoveling sand into piles. From the piles, the sand would go into a cleaning mechanism and then placed back on the beach. On the open part of the beach, there was one guy walking.
The empty beach was an eerie sight. I asked the guard if he would get in the water. He said that even if oil wasn’t a factor, he had seen several shark attacks on dolphins within 20 feet of the shore in recent days – and that was enough to deter him. Scarce said there was a high chance of connecting the shark attacks with the oil spill since the shark attacks are a recent occurrence.
“There are a lot of animals that have been pushed closer to the shore. Nobody can say for sure,” she said. “Since it’s never happened before, it’s suspicious.”
As we walked along the open beach, tar balls were easy to spot.
In Grand Isle State Park at the end of the island, we walked along the raised platform over the closed beach. Scarce said she was distressed not to see such nearly as many birds as she was hoping to see.
All in all, the day left me feeling much like I felt after reading The Awakening. The scenes, the people, the potential impact of the spill for all of us – and especially for Grand Isle, were just too much to wrap my head around.
For as long as I remember, my father has seemed sincere in his belief that Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” should become our national anthem.
During my senior year in high school, my father was principal of the school I attended. Like his love for Willie and “Blue Eyes,” my father also had a soft spot for underdogs or anyone who needed a bit of extra support.
There was a girl named Sheila in the 10th grade that year. Sheila lived on a chicken farm way out in the woods. As I remember, she loved old movies and Willie Nelson. She was, in fact, quite brilliant. She had a shocking, quirky sense of humor that kept us laughing. Determining the thin line between truth and fiction in the outrageous stories she told was a task. At 15, she decided she would befriend our family. Her parents were hard working, much older good folks. Her siblings were grown and long gone. Sheila farmed alongside her parents. Like good farming families everywhere, their schedule was set and strict. They went to bed early, and their home was quiet, real quiet.
Sheila thought our family was bordering on bizarre with our various interests, late nights and constant motion. She appreciated our energy. We recognized that this was a girl who would make her own way in the world. In my father’s eyes, maybe Sheila needed support to get where she wanted to be.
That was probably why he suggested the three of us go see Willie Nelson’s concert in Hattiesburg. On the hour drive to Hattiesburg, Dad laid out his reasoning to Sheila about the national anthem.
Once inside the arena, the three of us took our seats. In the midst of much rowdiness, we sat listening to Willie like we were in church. When Willie sang “Blue Eyes,” my father stood at attention throughout the entire song. He may have placed his hand on his heart.
I graduated from high school a month later. My family moved. We haven’t seen Sheila since. We’ve wondered out loud through the years, “Whatever happened to Sheila?” But we couldn’t find her. This week she contacted me. My first question was, “What on God’s green earth have you been doing for the last 28 years?”
I got the following written response – and nothing more.
Well, your dad would be happy to know I became a roadie in Willie’s band and was involved in a political stunt to get “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” made into the national anthem. Of course, since it’s not the anthem, you can tell our rebellion failed. (Our signs now sell real cheap on ebay). Sensing that the political oppression would be too much, Willie and I parted ways. I just took to running, and I ran! When I needed to stop, I did. When I needed to learn something, I did. Along the path, I’ve met some fantastic people, picked up some good vibes, a fine horse and motorcycles, shared some common sense, met a few crazy people and decided that tent camping at the Grand Canyon in 14 degree weather is not fun.
Last Saturday my eight-year-old daughter, Piper, and I went to the library. After much debate and discussion, she and I ended up checking out lots of books – 16 to be exact.
I believe libraries are the great equalizer. Through libraries everyone gets a shot at learning or being connected. Libraries change lives.
As my daughter and I appreciated the cool comfort of the downtown library, we braced ourselves to re-enter heat that felt a lot like a blow-dryer on high heat just outside the doors. We pushed the doors open and the heat was overpowering.
Even still, once outside, Piper and I ended up encountering another kind of magic.
Remember the 16 books she and I checked out?
They weren’t tiny picture books. They were big books – books to help us kick off a major undertaking. We may have gone slightly overboard, but we like to have our bases covered.
As anyone who’s ever lugged a backpack full of books can attest, the load we were carrying was beyond healthy. However, I knew we could make it one way or the other. As we walked outside, we met a lady we knew on our way out the library. We exchanged pleasantries as she ran inside to escape the oppressive heat.
I quickly realized Piper and I needed a new plan. We were not capable of making the full distance to the car. Just as I was about to suggest her waiting with the books and me running to get the car, Ray came into the picture.
I had never seen Ray before. He was a young man leaving the library, about to walk home with his younger brother. He walked up to us and simply said, “Let me help you.”
The transfer of books happened in an instant. One moment Ray was turning the corner from the library door, with his little brother trailing behind him. The next moment, seemingly without thinking, he did what he could do to ease the burden of someone else.
I’ve found that most of us these days are not comfortable accepting help when it’s offered — even when it’s help we could use. Lately, I’ve become more aware of being open to accepting help when it is offered.
So, there we were — an unlikely grouping of four, chatting as we made our way to the car. In one way, it was one of those awkward sort of moments that happens when worlds collide for an instant and you make small talk. In another way, it was its own kind of magic.
Ray told me he plays football for Lafayette High. He said he was entering 10th grade and wants to play linebacker. I could be wrong, but I have a feeling Ray will be a good one.
There he was, spending a Saturday afternoon at the library with his younger brother helping a woman and her daughter whom he had never met and will likely never see again.
Lately, I’ve lost a lot of hope in a lot of people.
Ray helped bring some back.
Long ago President Abraham Lincoln said, “We should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it.”
Not so long ago I inadvertently stepped into a hornet’s nest and by offering a suggestion on an Internet-based social networking system where I’ve connected with friends from near and far, I gave offense.
That wasn’t my intent.
Here’s what happened. I received an e-mail that included a link that I – or anyone else – could click. In doing so, one could sign an electronic birthday card for the President.
As long as I remember, I’ve said a prayer or sent warm thoughts to our country’s leader on his birthday. In fact, I wrote a column that ran on the last birthday President George W. Bush celebrated in office.
Let’s face it. The job is not an easy one. Presidents need our support. Look at the toll the task takes on those who serve in that office. It’s like they age in dog years.
President Obama will celebrate his 49th birthday Wednesday. I thought my online “friends” would be interested in wishing him well. To be sure, some were.
Others, not so much.
The animosity the simple gesture prompted troubles me still. Without question, I believe in free speech and the right for people to voice their opposition toward government leaders. One person who read the foofaraw my online Presidential birthday link caused wrote saying that prior to Obama’s election when he felt the need to speak out against Bush, he was called a traitor and unpatriotic by some of the same people who now speak out against Obama.
That just doesn’t sit right with me.
Another person wrote saying he hopes the president is miserable and sleepless until he repents and honors God with his decisions.
Does that thinking get us anywhere good?
Many negative responses I got regarding my quest for good thoughts for Obama referenced Christian thinking and Constitutional rights.
We are blessed to live in a country founded on religious freedom. Isn’t there patriotism and honor in wishing the leader of our country well regardless of political beliefs? Naively, I thought so and believed my online non-Obama-supporting friends would want to do so – if for no other reason than the simple concept we learned as children: Love your enemy.
I was wrong.
Through research, I learned that the doctrine of “Love your enemy” is taught in Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism, Taoism, Confucianism, the Unification Church and Christianity as a fundamental principal in getting along with others.
Maybe mere humans just can’t do it. Maybe that phrase so many of us heard throughout our upbringing is too difficult.
I invite you to join me in wishing the President the happiest of birthdays, full of insight and wisdom. He makes decisions that affect each of us — as well as the rest of the world. The position deserves our support and respect regardless of our politics. If that’s a difficult task, let’s stretch and consider our efforts as enlightened self-interest — spreading peace and making the world a better place.