Friday, August 5, 2011

Detroit Serendipity - Pam's take on the week

 Imagine a long hallway. It’s very beautiful. Light and airy, leaving you unexpectedly pleased. Now imagine there is a door at the end of the hallway, and it magically opens on its own accord revealing another beautiful hallway leading to a door that magically opens and another and another and another. As you walk easily down the hallway, each door before you magically opens.

That was how our RASC process went, from the first Facebook post to the closing party last night. Pure serendipity.

On a lovely weekend morning when we all had better things to do, a few of us found ourselves on Facebook. (What else is new, right?) Jenny posted an idea. Within minutes, she had her core team of organizers. Within days, we had a mission statement. Within weeks, we had a project, a web page, and the support of Roeper School. Within months, we had a solid team of volunteers on the ground with tools in hand.

As we proceeded, every time we needed something, it magically appeared. When our guide from Focus Hope said they would like the park to have a tall, visually pleasing structure, Asa Watten '03 – our Prince of the Pergola – stepped into the limelight. Asa had a vision. He seemed to know what he was doing. And we had the good sense to get out of his way and get behind him to take his vision from his creative brain to the corner of Linwood and Kendall. When we needed someone who knew something about gardening, Eric Peterson '95 of the NYC Parks and Recreation Department came aboard. When we needed a smart, go-getter who lives in the area to do the prep work, Amy Voigt '85 said yes when she had every excuse to say no. When digging those damn holes to support the structure became arduous, two young, strong Focus Hope volunteers showed up with exactly the skill set vitally needed. When we weren’t sure if our little project would make any difference to the community, 50 local kids swarmed into the park with their energy and enthusiasm. 

When we needed a truck to haul the wood,
Emery showed up.

When we needed compost,
Pam was there.

Before we even knew we needed a connection
with the most recent alums,
Catherine found us.

We need a few donated flowers.
Look what we got.

Over and over and over again, doors kept opening throughout the entire process.

What we did this week is what my cousin Jackie Victor devotes every single day to doing. From her teenage years on, I’ve known Jackie’s life passion is to revitalize Detroit.  As some of you may know, I’m extremely proud of my cousin’s work in the city, the example she sets by consciously living in Detroit, and the vibrant center of joy that is Avalon Breads which she and her partner Ann created from scratch. Jackie walks the walk - usually at a sprinter’s pace, sometimes at a crawl, but always forward. She’s in Detroit, every day, even, like she recently told me, “when it’s not so fun - in the dead of winter, on frigid days in February when you trudge to your car to discover someone has stolen your hubcaps.” So I figured that Jackie would have full and fair rights to besmirch the RASC project as the frivolous dalliance of out-of-towners descending into the city to spit a drop into the leaky bucket of Detroit.

But she did no such thing. On the contrary, Jackie is hugely supportive of our efforts. Glowingly. Joyously. Welcomingly.

“There is this great kismet about Detroit that the little things you do have a huge impact,” Jackie said to me this morning, before I had even mentioned the serendipity of our project and how much we’ve been pondering the word “impact.”

“Kismet! Yeah, that’s exactly what we encountered,” I said with surprise.

“That’s the thing about Detroit,” she chuckled knowingly. And she told me about a radio piece a few years ago where she wrote, “Detroit is a spiritual city. For no place else that I have visited or lived, cultivates the strength to see the divine within, in quite the same way as Detroit.”

Obviously Jackie had experienced those same magical doors of serendipity we discovered this week on the outwardly bleak corner of Linwood and Kendall.  

[To hear and read Jackie’s full piece entitled “Detroit is a Spiritual City,” check it out here]

Thursday, August 4, 2011

I open at the close - Jenny's take on the last day

"I open at the close" -- a line I love from  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - it's so beautiful and mysterious and it's all about endings. So it came to mind tonight as the Roeper Alumni Service Corps 2011 comes to a close.

I'm not one to stop and take time to just feel and experience and appreciate. I tend to be busily thinking busy noisy thoughts at 100 miles an hour: what's next? What went well, what needs tweaking? Who do we need to thank? What are all the evaluation questions we should ask? Should we change the mission? restructure? etcetera.

But all that can wait til tomorrow.  I have been writing my top ten favorite things about the week (my list is at about 14 and growing) and thinking of how every single person who showed up this week brought something special and necessary and perfect for that moment. And I'm not one who likes to talk about The Universe and how everything happens for a reason. But this week may have changed my views on that!

I've also been thinking about impact: the obvious kind - did we make a difference to Detroit? to Roeper?  Then there's another kind of impact, as Brad pointed out - the impact on ourselves. And a third kind, that my husband Fred mentioned later tonight: something about  acquiring humility.  Realizing that as RASC (and as human beings) we can only ever be a drop in the bucket, and accepting that.

Herewith, in no particular order , my top ten (twenty) favorite things about the Roeper Alumni Service Corps 2011.
Everyone we asked for help or to get involved said "yes" without hesitation
How the right person with the right skill kept showing up at just the right time
How a little girl named Paris said “We’re here to take care of the plants.”
The wonderful feeling of tired muscles after a hard day of physical work
Mom-approved porn. Eewwww.
Knowing we fed 1,000 hungry people
Salads from Avalon and how Avalon was in the very space that used to hold the Willis Gallery where I spent many hours as a child helping my mom hang art shows
How I couldn’t visualize what the pergola was going to look like but others could so I didn’t need to
190 trays of flowers - and we got a bigger boat
The greatest gift to us this week: Stephanie Cobb Johnson
Feeling like all my nostalgia has been banished - who needs to think wistful thoughts about life in Detroit in 1982 when life in Detroit in 2011 is so interesting and engrossing?
Learning about how many other entrepreneurial, community oriented project led by smart passionate committed people are happening in Detroit
Helping Roeper get press, build connections with alumni,
Having lots of long conversations abuot the Roeper philosophy
Meeting and working alongside very recent Roeper graduates
Making face book friends into real friends

love and thanks to all of you!

Ways You Know You’re on an Assembly Line with Roeperians (as observed by Pam)

·      You observe at least half the workers experimenting with alternative, non-standard methods of getting cans of food into boxes.

·      One person (that you know of) calculates the number of boxes packed per minute as she works.

·      You lose count of the number of puns exchanged.

·      Brad Rourke takes a photo of you with his phone.

·      The kids boss around the adults.

·      You engage in more than one brainstorming session.

·      More than one person has performed children’s theater/improv comedy/in a band.

·      Everyone uses the term “forensics” in the non-CSI way.

·      There is no need to translate from Geek to another language.

·      It kind of feels like a family reunion.

What This Week Means To Me (Brad's Take)

I was not much of a joiner in high school. In fact, I'm not much of a joiner now, but I can mingle with folks alright. In high school, you would not have seen me within four feet of a "service project," because not only was I not a joiner, but I was also pretty much a jerk.

This was brought home to me this week when one of my former classmates, whom I think the world of now, told me that the nickname for the crowd I ran with was "the mean boys."


That is one reason that this week of doing service with fellow Roeper alumni on behalf of Detroit, where I grew up, is so important to me. I have struggled for some time at being a better person than I was when growing up. I have so far to go, but at least I don't think I am in the "mean boys" crowd anymore.

Now, still the kind of person who does not get involved in group efforts, I was given the opportunity to take part in a series of meaningful acts with others. So, instead of quietly supporting from the sidelines and begging off with protests of being "too busy," I committed to coming back home to Detroit and working.

It has meant a lot to me. For me, it is a marker of the kind of person I want to be -- the kind who pitches in and helps.

And it is a testament to the power of the ideas behind The Roeper School, which seems to mold such people even in spite of themselves. Roeper showed great patience with my and my crowd's immaturity.

Roeper believes in the best within all children. I can remember a story a former administrator told me. A particular student had . . . well, let's say the chemistry lab needed a lot of cleanup and was smoldering a bit. (At least that's how he told the story.) The student's punishment? He was assigned to be in charge of the security of the chem lab for the rest of the year.

Once, I can recall that one student used a racial epithet against another. Classes were canceled and we worked together on racism.

Yes, Roeper is that kind of place.

To all the people who comprise the Roeper community, and especially to Jenny Hansell, Pam Victor, Amy Voigt, and Asa Watten who really got the Roeper Alumni Service Corps off the ground, thank you for this chance to work at being a better person.

~Brad Rourke

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Thousand Flowers (Brad's Take, Day Three)

Well, not a thousand. But, did you know what 100 flats of flowers look like when they are delivered? Like this:

As Jenny said, when she saw all the flowers being delivered, "We're going to need a bigger boat."

Today we took delivery of all these flowers in anticipation of an influx of young volunteers being led by Summer In The City folks . . . we did not know how many, but it turned out to be about fifty. It was pandemonium, as we asked them to plant the flowers in the many flower beds in a pocket park across from the old Bell Building.

While the kids were working, Channel 4 (WDIV) came by in the person of Lauren Podell and shot some footage that appeared on the 5 O'Clock news.

Yes, we were really on TV! Here is where you can see that.

Meanwhile, the Pergola Team completed the pergola in the wet.

After lunch, we came back to finish a few things up on the pergola . . . planting a few vines that will grow and begin to provide shade.

Then, it was back to the pocket park. We had barely made a dent in the flowers. Eric Peterson jumped into action and identified a bare flowerbed that could use some love. He and a handful of Bank of America volunteers quickly had the bed in shape.

Focus:Hope is planning to use the rest of the flowers in other parks, so we are not worried.

Tomorrow, we will be working in the food warehouse, distributing food for people in the community who are in need.

Tomorrow's our last day. What an incredible and meaningful experience this has been. I am so glad to have been a part of it. Jenny Hansell, thank you for having the initial idea to do this.

~Brad Rourke

Pam's Take of Day Two: Power to the People

The highlights of Day Two for me were the people. But, then again, for me it always comes down to the people upon reflection. I loved hanging out with Catherine, one of our most freshly minted graduates and the class president. (I only very vaguely remember us having a class president. I suspect it was either Stephanie or Denise because the rest of us were too lazy for the job.) Catherine was a wonderful representation of the best that a lifetime at Roeper can produce. She is intelligent, highly self-motivated and asks really good questions.

The sweltering and arduous afternoon was made much easier by working along side two young Focus Hope volunteers. I took vicarious thrill at their reactions to the scent of a lavender sprig I broke off from a plant I was weeding around. “Where can I get some of this? I want my dad to plant it!” So cute. Then the tables turned as one of the girls regaled me with the story of her luncheon with Barack and Michelle Obama. It was my turn to coo and swoon.

And, yeah, we weeded and turned over heavy, clay soil and raked mulch and spread compost too. It was hard work, and the kids and I crawled into bed early last night and slept until the last possible moment this morning. Turns out, good work makes you really, really tired.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Are We There Yet? Day Two: Brad's Take

Like Jenny, I found Day Two to be harder than yesterday . . . even though I had to leave a little early. My guilt at leaving early was doubled when I learned that my fellow Team Pergola members were still at work at 5:30. Yikes!

We were erecting a 12' structure. When I left, we had gotten the beams up, but we still had to tie them together with rails at the top, and then lay a lattice roof over it.

Those are tall beams.

Anyway, the portable power tools (drill and saw) kept running out of juice, necessitating quick requests of Focus:Hope for more power.

In the end, we quit with the rails installed at the top. Now we just need to put on the roof. We will need tall ladders tomorrow, but I think we will be up to it!

Jenny's right, the unsung hero is Stephanie.

A reporter from the Detroit News came and interviewed a number of us including Jenny, Asa, and Abe. We will see what comes of that!

Eric Peterson

Jenny Hansell and Clint Spevak

Asa Watten

Jenny Hansell, Pam Victor

Day two:

Jenny's take on Day Two:

Much harder than day one. All the "hey aren't we awesome" and "look, we're here at last!" thoughts were used up yesterday. Now we just had a lot of hard tedious work to do, pulling stubborn grass out of flower beds (Team Garden), and struggling with cordless tools that kept going dead (Team Pergola.)   It wasn't quite as hot as yesterday, and we had some new recruits who weren't tired at all, but even so Team Pergola worked til 5:30 and still didn't finish.   Now Asa has gone back to Pittsburgh, leaving TP to carry on without him. Luckily the TP members seem to know exactly how Asa intends those little strips of wood to attach from the six foot high beam to the ten foot high beam, and to have the skills to do it.

Our unsung hero of the day was Stephanie. "Hey Stephanie, we need a 10 foot ladder right away,"  ... "Hey Stephanie can you bring a whole bunch of rakes and shovels?" "Hey stephanie, you are delivering a gaggle of little children tomorrow to plant the flowers, right?"  "Sorry Stephanie we can't pack food today because we decided we had something else to do - you don't mind, do you?" 

Stephanie kept her smile all day, brought us ladders and rakes, made phone calls about children and food, and even came to help weed at 4:00 when a sensible woman might have chosen to stay in the airc-onditioned office and do something like check her email. 

Highlight of the day was definitely lunch at Avalon International Bread. It's in the old Willis Gallery, near Cass, where my mom showed her paintings back in the 1970's. (Called "Detroit's First Alternative Art Space" in one reference I found.)  Jackie Victor said when she got there it was no more than a cave, but I remember it as a very vibrant hub of the Detroit art scene.

In any case, now it's the hub of a whole new and wonderful scene - still vibrant, attractive and with the added benefit of being very yummy.

Tomorrow: planting 100 trays of flowers, painting a fence and bench, and figuring out whose tools are whose so we can get everything back to its rightful owner.

Holes: Thank You To Eric And Paul

Day One of the first Roeper Alumni Service Corps project is under our belts, and boy are my arms tired. Ba-dump-BUMP.

By the end of the day, you could barely see that we had made a dent in our project -- most of the work ended up below ground. We had to sink six 3-foot holes with an 8-inch diameter through hard-packed clay. Then we needed to fill the holes with concrete and let it set, so that on Day Two we could erect a shade-giving structure they call a "pergola."

There were about 7 Roeper alumni there on this first day, and it took us almost the whole time to just dig the holes. It was hard labor with no power tools of any sort to help us. Pickaxes, post-hole diggers, and a long bar with a point at one end that is called, according to its label, the "mutt." This turned out to be the most helpful implement.

Anyway, we dug six of this:

But then, with Day One drawing to a close, we still had to level the holes, and fill them with concrete.

Enter Eric and Paul. Our local sponsors, Focus:Hope had sent over a few high school-age volunteers to help out with some of the planting and weeding that we were beginning. Among them were two young men, Eric and Paul. Eric had been to masonry vocational school, and both boys were highly skilled around the job site. And, they were eager to pitch in.

We very quickly took a back seat as Eric and Paul leveled the holes (Asa and I were disputing one particular level measurement, with dueling iPhone apps, and Eric pulled out a water bottle and placed it on the board. "Water doesn't lie," he said, and told us that Asa was right and I was wrong. From then on we used his water-bottle level and kept our iPhones in our pants.)

We pitched in and all, but these guys really knew what they were doing. Because of their attitude and effort, we completed pouring the concrete and are now looking forward to having a secure foundation for the pergola.

Thanks guys.

~Brad Rourke

Monday, August 1, 2011

First Day Take Two

Sorry Pam, I think blogs have the most recent post at the top. So now I've gotten things all out of order - sort of like the street numbers on Telegraph Road, where there is a 24395 at 13 mile road, and another 24395 at Nine Mile Road. That's where I started my day at 8am, inquiring about rental vans to transport very very large pieces of wood, pieces which had been purchased and cut yesterday by Asa and Amy , the pergola prep team. (What's a pergola? Read the July 25 entry by Pam and you will know. Eventually.)

When I was a teenager driving around Detroit and environs in my snazzy 1974 Chevrolet Impala (brown) I loved the freeways. You got on at one end (Northwestern and 12 mile, say) whizzed along nearly underground, with high walls protecting you from "out there" and got off at the other end - Ann Arbor, maybe, or the Detroit Film Theater, or the Woodbridge Tavern, or some cool place. You never, NEVER got off in the middle. What was in the middle? Who knew? Who cared?  It was only years later that I started thinking about the middle, and the people living there, and the fact that they didn't have things like jobs, or buses, or maybe food, and I didn't know anything about them at all. I didn't live in Detroit anymore so I started volunteering in Harlem, thinking maybe there was some kind of Karma in that.

25 years later, and I finally got off the freeway in the middle - at Linwood, to be exact. At 9:30 this morning I arrived at FocusHope's very lovely headquarters on Oakman Boulevard, where I found the very shiny new Roeper grads Megan and Dan, crusty old Roeper dad Clint, and the very patient FocusHope staffers Bill (wearing the suit) and Stephanie (with the keys to the truck). I'd already called Bill to tell him we'd be late getting started (not how you want to show up on your first day) because of the wood. Remember the wood, and how Asa and Amy sawed it all up yesterday? Well it was big, and we needed a truck. Emery waved a magic wand and a bright red pickup that said Roeper on it appeared. This truck can't be turned off or it won't go back on, and the back gate doesn't open, but no matter. We put a couple of metric tonnes of wood in the back and sped off to FocusHope. (Note to Brad: I was right, you should have taken Franklin. I got there 20 minutes before you!)

After learning some history of FocusHope and all the impressive things they do, we trekked around the corner to the garden, where Abe, Asa, Brad and Em had all recently arrived. It was lovely - much nicer than the Google Earth pictures we'd seen. Over a dozen planting boxes were filled with blooming flowers, cherry tomatoes, herbs and a lot more.  We unloaded everyone's cars, set up a tent for shade, passed out the ice water, and the digging began.   I didn't get to use the pickaxe, but I did have fun with the post-hole digger.

The goal was to dig 5 (or maybe it was 6) 3 foot deep holes of perfectly even width.  Think about a three foot deep hole for a second. Got it? Right, that's deep. The soil was in layers: dirt (1 inch deep). Rocks and more rocks (a foot and a half), then heavy clay.  By lunch time, we were about halfway done, but Cliff's thermometer read 99 degrees and we were already wiped.   (And I have to confess I spent half the morning under the tent talking on the phone - everyone else worked a lot harder.)

Luckily, after lunch (about which, the less said the better but tomorrow we go to Avalon Bakery) help appeared: four teenagers in the FocusHope summer job program with seemingly endless energy and strength and a great enthusiasm for post hole digging.  

As they dug, Asa  (who designed the entire pergola) turned his attention to his planer, where he was carefully shaving tiny strips off the giant pieces of wood to make sure they were going to fit together just so. Dan and Megan started drilling and screwing (the wood, people, the wood!)  Brad art-directed.

I was actually on the other team - the garden team. Abe got his ipad with his landscaping app and started looking up plants that could tolerate hot sunny dry conditions.  "Rose of Sharon? Wandering Jew?"   Do all plants have such biblical names? Ashley (one of the teens) and I weeded, planted perennials, and talked about her neighborhood, her family and her dreams for her future (she wants to be a physical therapist because she's always loved helping people. She likes working with handicapped people especially because other people assume things about them but when you get to know them there's so much more to them than you ever imagined.) I also picked cherry tomatoes and dared her and the other guys to try them. She declared that she doesn't eat tomatoes, but I'm pretty sure she liked it.

A couple of very small people wandered in to help. I let them smell the herbs, and showed them how to water the plants right at the roots. They also got the best swag - the fantastic Roeper Alumni Corps t-shirts. (By this time in the story, if you're still reading, you might be wondering where the pictures are. I have them. In my camera. On the CF card. That doesn't connect to any of the technology in my parents' house. So pictures will come later.) They promised they'd come back Wednesday to help plant flowers, and headed across the street to buy some pop. (This is Detroit, remember? We Detroiters don't drink soda.)

3:00. Still 96 degrees. Holes dug, now they are filled with concrete, screws placed just so in the concrete so the very large pieces of wood will attach to them tomorrow. Perennials planted, plans in place for Tuesday: giant truckload of compost, which we'll dig into some new garden beds; and Wednesday: giant truck of 100 trays of donated flowers, which we'll plant in the garden beds with the help of lots of very small people from Summer in the City.  And more pergola building, fence painting and food packing.
4:15, all cleaned up, rinse off my dirty feet, head out to meet the team at Bastone in Royal Oak for some post-game analysis and beer.

Note to Asa: you were right. I should have taken Davison. You had time to down a couple of rounds before I criss-crossed through eight suburbs and finally made it back to Royal Oak!  However, you all saved some moules and frites for me, and we all got to know each other a little better. Pam used to live in a log hut. Geoff just got married in Las Vegas. Asa is mixing up cow poop and pond water (or something like that) and storing it in the back of his car for a few weeks to see if it makes fuel. Cliff knows how to make robots. And I once slept in the bed of Ma and Pa Harding while they sat in their living room and smoked all night long.

Tomorrow, Day II. Put your makeup on and wear your RASC T-shirt, the TV cameras are coming.

First Day!

August 1, 2011

Today was our first day! Unfortunately, I was unable to get into town in time to work today, so I hope someone else writes about the experience. By all accounts the  day was quite successful, and I'm looking forward to tomorrow.

However, I did the opportunity to put some faces to the names and disembodied conference call voices this evening at a small after-work, drinks & apps get-together. For instance, it was a pleasure to meet in person Asa, our "Prince of the Pergola," who graduated in 2003.

Asa was born the year I graduated from Roeper.

And though, yes, it's true that a Lowe's worker might have thought that Asa was Amy's son when they were picking up wood the other day, I kind of love the fact that this experience is bringing us together, erasing the differences of years, and showcasing our commonalities in spirit.

-contributed by Pam Victor

Monday, July 25, 2011

Welcome to the RASC Blog

JULY 25, 2011

"We should build a pergola," Asa Watten said during a conference call. All the others on the call, Jenny Hansell, Brad Rourke and Amy Voigt, made various knowing hums of approval.

Me, I'm thinking, "What the hell is a pergola?!"

While Jenny mellifluously rattled off Important Organizational Details of which I no doubt should be taking careful note, my mind was flipping through the possible meanings of "pergola."

My first thought was that Pergola sounded like a brand of fancy espresso makers. Or maybe it was a European model of a car? Equally likely, pergola sounded like a disease of the skin or respiratory tract, y'know, like pleurisy but modern. And itchy. Wait, Asa went to Roeper. He might be talking about a fancy mathematical name for a geometric shape. My desperate mind wheeled back to Shirley, I mean, Elaine Eklund's geometry class. Hmmmm....yeah...I got nothin'. All I remember from that class was the general feeling of vexation at taking a class with 6th graders in it.

"Context, Victor. Context," I harangue myself while Brad contributed still more Important Organizational Details to which I should be attending. I do surface mentally into the conversation long enough to tease Brad about sounding like a grumpy old man. I say, "Get off my lawn, you kids!" Judging by the silence that follows, my timing might have been a wee bit off.

So, I did what any sensible person would do. I Googled "pergola."

For your information, a pergola is shade-providing garden structure. It's like a permanent chuppah.

If you don't know what a chuppah is, you need to get some more Jewish friends.

Or Google it.

-contributed by Pam Victor