Sunday, December 24, 2006

Yes, Danielle, there IS a Santa Claus

Danielle Larsen, foreground

In Pearlington I am called “Canada Jon” but in the circle of Dream School International, my heart’s creation for the past decade, I am known as “Big Dreamer.” The Soviet press once labelled me so, calling me “nothing but a big dreamer.”

The name stuck and I am proud of it.

So, when I was sent the tale of 16-year-old Danielle Larsen, from Huntsville, Alabama, whose story of “That House” in Pearlington was posted to Sharing Pearlington on December 19, I knew I was in the energy of a fellow Dreamer. When the previously-unknown owner of the home responded from Dallas two days later, I knew that Magic was afoot. And, when it turned out that Danielle’s family was going to be in Dallas visiting family for Christmas, and when Mr. Gardner’s daughter entered the scene by email, I knew that this was a Dream in the making.

A check into her background reveals Danielle as a caring, generous, creative and determined person who, in fact, Dreamed her way (as well as her family’s) to Pearlington in the first place. These are the qualities of a Dreamer and they are the birthright of us all. This is more than the story of a child who went to Mississippi a girl and came home a woman. This is the story of a Dreamer who will now turn her Dream into reality in a magical and creative way and will never take NO for an answer.

The world seems filled with Dream Stealers - we all have done it - who tell us from the very start to “get real,” to “grow up” or to “settle down.” Yet, the purpose of childhood is to constantly learn, to stretch and to challenge ourselves to become more than we were the day before. I long ago rejected the notion this world was “real,” in the same way I rejected the notion that my God was “false.” Danielle, and many of the young people we have watched transform in Pearlington, remind us that somewhere deep inside us all is a child yearning to fly - to stretch our glorious wings and to aim for the stars.

The real Magic of Christmas is not the turkey nor the tree, not the presents nor the presentation, not even the birth itself of Jesus Christ. He was born so we might live, and live truly. He was born that we might shake the very foundations of the known and reach for immortality. He taught us that no Dream is ever too big, no Dreamer ever too small.

In a cynical and disparate world where cultures clash and each believes that their truth is surely THE truth, there are the Danielle Larsens, who Dream big and listen only with their hearts and souls. It is what brought this Big Dreamer to Pearlington so many months ago, along with almost every other volunteer I’ve had the pleasure to meet there since.

Dream on, Danielle. I am beside you like so many others; as you renew our faith, hold up the mirror of your youth and call us back to our rightful place.

Yes, Danielle, there is a Santa Claus.

It is YOU. Merry Christmas.

Oh I believe there are Angels among us,
Sent down to us from somewhere up above;
They come to you and me in our darkest hours,
To show us how to live, to teach us how to give,
To guide us with a light of love.
- “Angels Among Us”, the rock band Alabama

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Bits and Bytes; Baptists and Burners

As 2006 draws to a close, we are very proud to welcome two new members to the C.O.D.R.A. Community of agencies bringing relief and recovery to Pearlington, MS.:

Brian Terry and his team from Rockingham First Baptist Church Mission Team in Rockingham, NC join us and send this:

"My church and I are working on another mission trip, maybe late Jan or early February."

Check out their latest press article HERE.

We also welcome a well-known group from Pearlington, who spent much time in the town clearing lots and doing all sorts of hard and valuable work.

Burners Without Borders are those crazy folks who were camped out on the old Post Office pad last year. Karine Wilson sends this article from San Francisco Chronicle. It is available HERE - then check them out at:


Some words from a couple of our favorite C.O.D.R.A. members:

"Check out the new updates to our website. You may have to refresh your page to see them."
- Jennifer Johnson, BRICK Layers of AL

"Here you go. Two dates around the holidays. I have some men signed up for the Jan 4th trip, and some possibles for the 28th so far. Also, a team called "Double Parked" goes down on January 10th weekend. Team Capt is Michael Isaacs."
- Tim Goodnow, Dog Soldiers of Alabama

Pearlington Recovery Center
"Lots happening, folks working together better than before, volunteers numbers starting to improve, material availability increasing - and tons of holiday goodwill and plans.

A truck of gifts for the folks on our elderly list arrived yesterday afternoon.

Madeline and the girls from VT arrived tonight - the truck load of goodies arrives tomorrow. A group of repeat volunteers from Jackson UMC also arrived tonight and some of the Four Square group are also arriving tomorrow with a truckload of goodies as well.

AND the truck from Linda Edwards’ Pickin’ up the Pieces arrives tomorrow and it looks like we will be unloading trucks all day! The Salvation Army is bringing a pallet each of bananas and pineapples for giveaway during the Saturday events.

Foley Church from Alabama will be bringing a truckload of gifts for the families they adopted on Sunday. Nell Nation of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is working on a holiday donation of cards for propane, and others are bringing gifts as well.

Christmas in Pearlington will be a huge success again this year."
- Laurie Spaschak

Thanks to all who have made this another great year to be alive and in service to others.

God bless you all and God bless Pearlington!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Pearlington at Christmas

Recently, I was asked to write the following concerning my impressions of the state of rebuilding in Pearlington.

The request came from Judy Totts of The Gazette, Medina County, Ohio. Please feel free to share it with your own local news media, if you think it appropriate. I have also added it as a downloadable and printable .pdf file, temporarily house under a link to the right. Be sure to add your own contact information, if you send it out.

This weekend past, my wife and I erected a 9-ft. fresh-cut Christmas tree and decorated it; put a large turkey in the freezer for the holidays and braved the malls looking for the perfect gifts. On Christmas morning, we will gather ‘round that tree, open our presents to each other and then sit down to a sumptuous meal before a warm fire. Like many North Americans, it will be a time of family, of giving and of Peace.

Not so, many of the residents of Pearlington, Mississippi.

On this second Christmas out from Hurricane Katrina, many families are still crammed into FEMA trailers, awaiting sufficient resources and volunteer labor to rebuild their shattered homes and broken lives.

Only about 35% of the town has been rebuilt and each day is another reminder of the devastation close at hand and another test of Faith. Many will never tell their children that the gifts they receive this year were once again donated by perfect strangers. They will gather at churches and the Recovery Center for a meal, because the oven in a FEMA trailer can barely hold a chicken. They will take their pride and their dignity and once again put them in their empty pockets for another day.

And they will pray that we are able to get to them soon, that some kindness will find its way to their house, that some Angel will come to make that house a home once again.

It’s not our fault that many of us will be safe and abundant this Christmas, any more that it’s the people of Pearlington’s fault that they will not. At the very least let us be filled with gratitude and take nothing for granted, for some of us know that Life turns on a dime and that nothing is forever.

"Canada Jon" White
Director, C.O.D.R.A.
The Coalition of Disaster Relief Agencies in Pearlington

Thursday, December 07, 2006

A Letter from Jeanne Brooks

Jon, just a note to keep in touch.

Though we're not located in Pearlington anymore, you know my heart is still with the children and families of that community. When we ‘combined’ with Gulfview, I became librarian of the total school and Gulfview's lead teacher remained lead teacher for the combined school.

To date, the school library has received a $50,000.00 National Education Association grant, a $10,000.00 Beyond Words/American Library Association grant, and we're waiting (though the press release is out) for the awarding of a $75,000.00 Laura Bush Foundation grant. We have thousands of books, mostly now cataloged and in place, and a double-wide trailer decorated for each and every season. Right now there's a 9-1/2 foot tall sparkling Christmas tree brimming with an ornament handmade by each child. Not bad for a" little bitty spot on the map!"

Watching the kids faces and hearing the oohs and aahs when they walk in the door, makes it all worthwhile. I've also been working in the wings with donors who are working towards Christmas for the kids and the school. Now that we're close to 600 kids in the combined school, it takes a lot more just to go around!

I just wanted to say thanks to you, to the volunteers, and to so many who have touched my heart in so many ways.

Merry Christmas, y'all and as Tiny Tim in the Christmas classic said many years ago:

"God Bless us, every one!"

Jeanne Brooks

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

LIVE - from Canada....

I would like to draw your attention to a very special new Blog.

It is called ‘Pluggin’ into Pearlington’ and it is designed specifically for potential volunteers to plug into the various organizations represented by C.O.D.R.A. - the Coalition of Disaster Relief Agencies.

If you look to the right, at the top of the panel, you will find the new link; or, access it directly HERE.

If you are a member of C.O.D.R.A. and wish a listing on the site, please contact me.

Let’s get some volunteers to Pearlington!

You will also notice to the right that I have reorganized the C.O.D.R.A. membership list, to honor the Founding Members of our Coalition, which grows daily.

Newest Members of C.O.D.R.A.
We welcome two new members to our Coalition community.

The first is Conrad Velasco, whose story I shared last week. Also, we welcome Nancy Semple of my own town of Collingwood, Ontario, Canada. Nancy has had two tours of Pearlington and continues to work back home to bring relief to her many new friends in here.

Laurie Spaschak has had the Pearlington Recovery Center beautifully decorated for Christmas, an activity that was not possible last year. I went and looked the night before I left to return to Canada and was deeply moved....

I will also be working on new Adopt-a-Home blogs and have reorganized that site as well. Stayed tuned....

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Live from Pearlington - Dec. 3, 2006

Welcome to Mississippi
Photo by Nancy Semple

It's my last day in Pearlington and I am reflective of all that I've seen and all that is happening in town.

Progress is being made, that's for sure. The sound of swinging hammers and buzzing saws fills pockets of almost every street and there's a greater air of collective 'normalcy' than I've noticed before. People pull up to the restored ATM that, for a long time, sat abandoned and defiled by the storm. Over at the E-Z Mart kids pull in to fuel up their fast cars, vehicles able to pass everything on Hwy. 90 but a gas station. Out front, people stop to chat and gossip and inside, the product is a lot fresher and more abundant than it was in the summer.

There are flowers blooming and great, tall grasses and the trees seem to have lost their ghostly, grey look. While there is still debris in lots of places, it appears less overwhelming. In the Bay and Slidell it is business as usual.

It would be easy for an optimist like me to rest on our collective laurels.


I know that many of you count on me to speak my truth, my observations of what is really happening in Pearlington:

There are subtle signs of fatigue lining the faces of many of the long-term Volunteers. It is the burden of duty, made more pronounced by the worry that resources are starting to flow and there may not be enough volunteers coming to town to utilize them. Funders want the money spent and proof that it was done quickly and properly. It's the reverse of last year, when we had lots of volunteers and no resources. So, we must find clever ways to draw the world's attention back to the reality that Katrina is still wreaking havoc on the Coast.

While some are getting back into their homes, many continue to stare at the walls of their FEMA 'can-dominiums' - whose dimensions shrink daily, as does the occupants’ hope. The truly disenfranchised will be those who rented or lived on family land to which they have no clear title. They will not get the grants and there is nothing to be rented in Pearlington. When FEMA comes for their trailers, I greatly fear for their welfare.

There are many stories of jubilation in this bayou town, yet still too many tales of loss and fear. We have an opportunity to get this done at last and I will do whatever it takes to get the labor here to finish this monumental task.

To that end, I am issuing a challenge:

By Wednesday, August 29, 2007 - as we volunteers gather in Pearlington for the 2nd Annual Volunteer Reunion - let it be that we leave Pearlington a completely restored town.

Call in all your favors, all your resources. I am asking for ANY ideas - no matter how far-fetched - to attract volunteers and skilled tradespeople to Pearlington. Send them to me at: or

In the coming days I will be mounting on this Blog a sample press-release in .pdf format. You will be able to download it and send it to every newspaper, TV and radio station in your area. Some of the volunteer groups are looking at a combined national press campaign. You can do it locally.

Send your ideas and together, let's create our way to Victory in Pearlington.

It's a sunny Sunday in Pearlington. People are gathering to worship God and to pray for solutions. We have 270 days until the 2nd anniversary of the Storm.

Let the countdown begin....

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Focus On: Walls of Hope

Gene and Gene Butterfield

Month by month, day by day, Gene Butterfield looks for new ways to build more house for less money. And as the Walls of Hope go up, Gene hopes so does a room to house the Lord inside each heart.

Walls of Hope is a work in progress. As each of the two dozen homes they've built in Pearlington were constructed, Gene found ways to get a bigger bang for the homeowner's buck. He claims that Walls of Hope can now build a fully-enclosed and dried in exterior, complete with vinyl siding and shingled roof, roughed in electrical and kitchen cabinets for just over $25. per sq. ft. This he compares to the local rate for the same thing of about $140. per sq. ft.

A registered non-profit corporation, Walls of Hope is the brain-child of the entire Butterfield family, including Gene Sr. and brother Paul. One of their Directors is young Kristian Dambrino, the author of the Pearlington song, who will be in town on December 28th. Brother Paul, a contractor in Iowa, can build modular sections of the five available models back in his factory in Iowa and ship them to Pearlington, cheaper than it is to buy the materials alone locally. And with post-Katrina pricing on the coast, this has made the real difference. The pre-fabrication of the walls in Iowa also cuts down on the skills required by volunteer builders and is a safer and more consistent process all around.

Gene originally came to Pearlington from his own contracting business in Virginia, to rebuild the First Southern Baptist Church. Working with David and Patty Baldwin, who graciously took over the task of volunteer coordination and housing, Gene was able to concentrate on the church, which is now virtually finished. On Thursday, as I was trying to locate him for our interview, I went to the First Southern looking for him. There, a small crew was preparing to mount the new steeple. Strangely enough, I asked one of the men if they had seen him. There was a bit of confusion, as the man I asked turned out to be named Gene BUTTONfield!

Soon, Walls of Hope will have their own trained Case Manager and Gene confirmed for me Thursday that they are now prepared to sponsor the homeowner for a Salvation Army grant to finish the interior of the homes. They have create a unique reciprocal agreement with Home Depot to provide the elements and ship them to the site in Pearlington. They have been treated well by the County, who has pre-assessed the five models of homes and only charges minimally to assess the land. They are also in negotiations with several local and national banks concerning the facilitation of mortgages.

In the end, Gene estimates that, using volunteer labor and with the system they have in place, the entire house can be done for around $50. per sq. ft.

The Butterfields recognize that Walls of Hope is not for every resident in Pearlington. As they struggle to survive and as they streamline their methods and search for creative ways to get things done, they have no desire whatsoever to see housing shells lining the streets of Pearlington. They will work with interested homeowners to secure grants and funding to finish the interiors and their sincere desire is to see people back in the homes that Hope built.

Check them out at: