Friday, November 21, 2014

Identifying Community Needs

We in Middle Class America know what the problems in the "less fortunate" communities are, and we are here to solve them. OK... maybe that's not fair. Let's talk about what I REALLY know about. So let me start over. We in Middle Class Birmingham know what the problems are over in West End, or Woodlawn, or Elyton, and we are here to solve them.

Siimple enough. OK, what are the problems in West End and Elyton? Well,  obviously one of the main problems is hunger. Just look at all the people begging for money for food. Many of them "Will work for food"... until someone offers to let him mow their yard, or clean their house, in exchange for lunch or supper. OK... bad example. Everyone was on to that. The signs have changed. Now it's "Disabled Vet. Need help." Except when you ask them what branch they were in or what their MOS was. They get a blank look and say, "I don't remember." Or try to give them a list of V. A. agencies who provide everything to veterans from food to shelter to healthcare to wheelchair vans, they hand it back and ask, "Can you spare a few bucks?" Another bad example... How about those pitiful panhandlers in the church parking lot telling the little old ladies they're hungry, but get really agitated when the ladies invite them inside the church for sandwiches and coffee? Or those in the grocery store parking lot asking for food money until they can "get back home" but refuse to come into the store and let you buy them groceries? 

A homeless man I talked with in Avondale Park said, "If anyone in Birmingham is hungry, it's their own fault. There are at least a hundred places that hand out free food or meals every day." 

While I'm sure a hundred is an exaggeration, there are 4 places/churches within 2 miles of Avondale Park that daily prepare hot noon meals for the homeless. Two of those also prepare evening meals, and two churches in the area hand out bags of groceries every week. 

One resident of a veterans' home in the area told me that they get more food donated than they can eat, only mostly it's fruit, cookies and bread. He said they don't get many donations of meat and vegetables. He said when he gets his check he heads for a local diner for "meatloaf and beans. Don't get that donated." Then he heads to Piggly Wiggly for tuna and "vi-eeners".

Well, if it's not hunger, must be healthcare. We all watch the news, and know that the underpriviledged don't have access to healthcare. Lots of people agree on that, because last October there were 3 huge health fairs in the Avondale community within 2 weeks of each other. All three were sparcely attended. Why? Well two of the health fair sponsors said it was due to "poor communication". If people had known, they would have come in droves. But one of these advertised on the radio, on TV, and had posters all over Avondale. Another did the poster thing, but also advertised heavily to their Brown Bag Grocery recipients for a month beforehand. (Further proof of healthcare needs is the two free health clinics in Avondale and Woodlawn.)

So where were the people who need healthcare? Several people told me "I get a free flu shot at my doctor. He also takes my blood pressure. Didn't need a health fair." WHAT?? How do you afford the doctor? "Medicaid pays." If you don't have Medicaid or Medicare, you can go to one of the free clinics, or if you just need your blood pressure taken, stop by the fire department. The homeless in Avondale Park mostly go to M-Power's free clinic, because they also get free medication there, as do the homeless in Woodlawn.

Well, I guess the homeless need shelter? Back to the park. Asking the people who live in the pavillion and sleep on the picnic tables if they would like a ride to the Firehouse Shelter, or to the J.H. or another mission that houses and feeds people. "No thanks, Ms. Ginger." But... but... but... why not? "Can't drink at the mission, and have to pray every day. Have to clean your room and be in by ten at the Firehouse. Have to look for a job too.  I don't need all that hassle."

So how do we identify what the needs are? We could ask the charities, run by the middle class,  who serve the population. I suspect If we asked CSM, they would say the biggest need is food. It's what they do. If we ask M-Power, they would say healthcare. It's what they do. (M-Power also has some awesome job training programs, which they have identified as a need in the community). If we ask the Jimmy Hale Mission, they would tell us it's shelter and alcohol rehab. It's what they do. 

But I don't mean to direct this rant to the homeless. There are multitudes of ramshackle houses in all those areas, in which families live ... well, reside. While my house is small and needs work, it is in a neighborhood that has never seen a drive-by shooting. There has never been a robbery at our 7-11. Children safely ride their bikes all around the block. I don't personally know all my neighbors, but I know most of them, and all of them by sight, or by their cars. 

I do know that not one of them is chronically hungry. None of them is homeless, and none of them lives in a drafty house in Avondale with iffy heat or drafty fire-hazard fireplaces, no a.c., with roaches running rampant. None them prays nightly that somehow God will provide their child a coat for the winter, or help them find a way to pay the power bill this month. Not one of us in my middle class neighborhood is homebound because we can't drive, or can't afford a car, or because our children and other relatives have died or forsaken us, or moved to California, so we see nobody except whoever appears on our TV screen - IF we have a TV. 

As for you: I would bet not a single one of you actually goes a day, much less a week or a month, without your phone ringing. SOMEBODY thinks about you every day, and SOMEBODY calls to tell you. 

When you look at "those people's" situation, it's easy to identify the problems from a middle-class viewpoint. "Good grief! You can't pay your power bill. How do you think you can feed that DOG??" "If he abuses you, leave him." "If you're sick, go to the doctor. "If you would spend your money on food instead of beer, maybe you wouldn't be hungry." "Clean up this mess. Get rid of that cat. You can't even afford kitty litter!" 

So it sounds like the main problem is just that "those people" make bad choices. Maybe they do. 

But maybe, just MAYBE, the problem is loneliness. Maybe people need companionship more than they need food, or shelter, or healthcare, or even their dignity. And maybe, for some people, the only friend that never deserts, is there every day, and comforts the most, lives in a bottle.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Lonely Banquet

National Veterans Day Awards Dinner, 2014, did so many things RIGHT!

To begin with, the "reception" before the event was open to everyone. The hors d'oeuvres were simple, but elegant and plentiful. There was a cash bar for everyone, and the VIPs got a "one free drink" card. That made everyone feel special and welcome. There was a band playing cocktail music, and people were mingling, talking and laughing in the huge lobby of the ballroom. Perfect start to the evening!

At 1845, the ballroom doors opened, and people started making their way into the banquet. VSOs sell blocks of banquet tickets to their members. That is because the members of your American Legion Post want to sit together. I am a member of several organizations, so this year I chose to sit with BSSFI. There are 8 people to a table, so I knew we would have several tables. Well, it turned out "we" had one table. Eight members were assigned to that table. The other 10 or so of us were scattered throughout the room. I was at a table with seven people I didn't know. What are the odds of that?? I probably knew about 150 of the attendees, and not a single one of them was even within hollering range of my table.

In the meantime, members of the other VSOs to which I belong were saying, "Why are you over here by yourself?" I had no answer. I did meet four delightful young ladies at my table (who left just after the second hour was finished). I will say that they had a new ticket person this year, but one would think that he would have placed blocks of people from the same organization near each other, not spread out all over the room.

But that was ok. We weren't there to talk anyway.

The program started appropriately with the presentation of the colors, followed by the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance. Then everyone sat, and there was a welcoming speech, then some words of wisdom from Mayor Bell, and then a short speech from someone from a local business that contributed money to the celebration. All that took about 20 minutes. THEN an Army Chaplain came up to pray the invocation, so we could eat. Well, another seven minutes later... (probably the longest "invocation" I've ever sat through) we dug into the now-wilting salad.

So about 30 minutes have passed, and we're just now beginning dinner. Not too bad, because we are about one-third through the program.

The first thing on the real agenda was introducing the head table. There were, I would estimate, about 40 of them - three rows that spanned the entire end of the room. OK. NOW we have "Opening Remarks"... I'm quoting the program here. This is over halfway down the program. Well, this is the first dude since the preacher that loves to hear himself talk. I think he was a from the National Veterans Administration, because he gave us MANY statistics about the Veterans' Hospitals in this country, of which this guy has visited 26 or 27. He can't remember. But he did have a LOT of statistics about how many more patients are served today than a year ago, and the percentages of people that get appointments within a month, and on and on. It was after 8:00 by now, and people were beginning to leave. I thought they were going to the restroom, but they didn't return, so I deduced they had left. Well... 15 or 20 minutes of "opening remarks" that consisted of lists of statistics probably was putting them to sleep. I needed another glass of wine.

He FINALLY shut up and sat down, and the "SPEAKER" was introduced. THIS dude was awesome. The keynote speaker was well spoken, clear, had a great Morgan Freeman voice, and spoke about eight minutes and sat down. (Doing better!)

After that, it began falling apart. There was a "Minuteman Award" given by the ROA president, who apparently hadn't read her speech ahead of time, and stumbled over words, hesitated between words, and ended up giving such a disjointed award that I'm not really sure what the Minuteman Award is. It was presented to some Congresswoman, who gave a loud and long, aggressive political speech about what the Republicans need to do, now that they're in the majority, preceded by introducing all her family and staff, who were in the audience, and telling us what all they've done for her and her office. I didn't time it, because I truly thought she was going to say something like, "This is an honor. Thank you," and sit down. Oh NOOOOOOO...

By now it was about 9:30, and we were still several agenda items from the end of the program. More people left. I was still there with two gentlemen at my table I didn't know, and the tables around me were almost empty.

Then they went off the program and presented the "Soaring Eagle" award to Catherine Roberts, founder of the Quilts of Valor Foundation. She couldn't be there, so some other woman accepted the award for her. There was a very nice bio of Ms. Roberts in the program, and the woman pointed out that this bio didn't tell the "whole story", so she proceeded to read a comprehensive bio and story of how Quilts of Valor came to be, how and why the name was changed several times before the last name was chosen, and ended with some statistics about how many have been awarded and why. Her speech was approximately 20 minutes, I think.

The next item was the "Screaming Eagle" Awards. Mayor Bell's father, a WWII veteran, received one, and Dick Cole got one. THEN Congressman Spencer Bacchus got one. Now, I'm not getting political here. This isn't the venue for that. I admire and respect Congressman Bacchus for all the hard work he has done for veterans. Among other things, he was instrumental in getting the National Cemetery in Montevallo for Alabama. That said, he is probably the worst speaker I've ever heard. He has a squeaky voice, and he can't make a sentence without 3 or 4 "ers" or "uhs" ... almost like listening to a stutterer. On top of that, he is redundant, and drones on for seemingly hours on end. OK.. I exaggerate, but not much. More people left. I would estimate that over half the people had left by now. Most of the middle 30 or so tables were empty.

FINALLY came the National Veteran Award presentation, to Senator Bob Dole. Senator Dole is unable to travel after his stroke, but a couple of people read why he was chosen for the award, and why he couldn't be there to receive it. Last March, a contingent of the Committee had gone to Washington to present it to Sen. Dole, and recorded the event.

On video, Mark Ryan, President of National Veterans Day in Birmingham, was shown, along with Senator Dole (in a wheelchair) and guess who... Congressman Spencer Bacchus.

Mark read the same thing on video he had just read live to us, but explaining that the REAL award was like the Heissman Cup. It has recipients' names engraved on it, and Sen. Dole will be added to the ranks of veterans such as DD Eisenhower, General Bradley, etc. He read about 8 of them. If they had let Sen. Dole say thank you at that point, it would have been perfect. But Congressman Bacchus was there. He started in and in his squeaky, stuttering voice, talked for about ten minutes. His redundancy and repeating things in one-syllable words made it look like he thought Sen. Dole was either 5 years old, or was retarded.

Before Sen Dole could speak, a woman appeared where Bacchus had been, and began reading the same Quilts of Valor bio the lady at the banquet had read. OMG! (At the back of the room, people were streaming out like it was a fire drill or something. The back tables had pretty much emptied.) She then presented Sen. Dole with a beautiful Quilt of Valor, explaining what the pattern was, and taking her cue from Bacchus, asked if she could wrap him in the quilt, and explained that "It's how we do it. It's our tradition to wrap the quilt around the warrior who receives it."

At 10:30, Senator Dole said (basically), "Thank you for this award. Thank you for this blanket. I served under General Eisenhower, and it is an honor to be listed here with him."

Thankfully, someone stopped the tape at that point. More people were leaving and as I looked around at those still at tables, it was mostly the head tables, although a couple of them had also left.
The ending would have been great, because the band was still in the lobby, the cash bar was still open, and Mark invited everyone to go and dance - the band will play until ...

If everyone hadn't turned into a pumpkin by then, it would have been perfect to regather out there, have a drink, dance a bit, and go home happy. As it was, the few people still there were dragging to the parking deck. A man who happened to be in the elevator with me asked, "Did you enjoy the evening?" I said, "Well, up to a point." not knowing who he was, or what connection he might have. But he said, "It could have been a coupla hours shorter and I would have REALLY enjoyed it." All I could say to that was, "Me too."