Halfway through our trip and we are finally ready to contact fishermen about food vouchers. I set myself up outside in the Louisiana summer heat under a pavilion at our motel. I was nervous about making that first phone call. Would they listen to what I had to say? Would my New England accent be too fast for them? Would they be offended? My first contact was answered by the fisherman’s wife. She received my offer very humbly and graciously. She informed me that they are currently on food stamps, so if someone else needed it more than them then the vouchers should go to them. I made note of that and put them down as a yes for receiving vouchers. A three-minute conversation that had gone smoothly. Exhale, that wasn’t so bad, onto the next one! After a few rings a rough sounding fisherman answered. Images of this proud, weathered, tough fisherman taking major offense to my offerings ran through my head. I pushed my nervous feelings aside and told him the program I am with, why I am on Grand Isle, and what we would like to do to help. A short pause and from the other end I hear a stern “Yes, absolutely”. Exhale again, “Great!” I say. I am thanked and the conversation ends.
This continued as I proceeded with my list of contacts. I received excited “yes’s” from wives; fishermen explaining how they are trying to make ends meet for their families (and one fisherman expressed the importance of him feeding his dog and seven cats with a jolly, booming laugh); and many expressions of gratitude from these sweet people. The people I was worried would be angry with me began telling me their stories, sharing their pain with me.
One such couple moved me so deeply I couldn’t hold back my feelings and I began to cry as well. I dialed the number and after a few rings an elderly man answered. I introduced myself and our plan to help. Halfway through my introduction he interrupted me so that he could get his wife on the line with us because he is a little hard of hearing. Again I introduced myself and what we were aiming to do. They told me that they live on Grand Isle and have for forty years. He has been fishing for thirty years. He told me he is struggling with emphysema and tried to take his boat out to work with BP but couldn’t do it with the oil. BP sent them a check for five thousand dollars, but that does not go far and they had no idea when the next check would come. They are living in uncertainty. I expressed my desire to help them with this horrible disaster. He declared that Grand Isle is a beautiful island and this is surely a horrible thing to happen. He pointed out that oil is taking over the island. His accent was getting thicker; I was having a difficult time understanding him. “If a storm comes now”, he says with a shaky voice, “it will all be ruined”. His voice trails off and his wife explains that he gets very emotional with all of this, they both do. I realized that they were crying. These people were opening their hearts to me. She states that if this continues they will have to leave the island. After recovering his composure the husband gets back on the line and in a strong voice states, “I just hope and pray that this isn’t the devastation of our fisheries, I hope they can make it back”. He breaks down again; they are crying together. Through a broken sentence she says, “This is supposed to be a happy time for us, next Sunday is our fiftieth wedding anniversary”.
After this heavy conversation was ended with many thanks and a “bless your heart” I hung up and wiped tears from my eyes. I headed back to the motel room to give Rachel an update. As I went through the list with her I realized that I had stumbled upon twelve hearts of gold. The people made sure to tell me that they were on food stamps or had received some sort of payment from BP, or that they were trying to do another job to make ends meet. They were ensuring me to give the vouchers to someone more in need than them if there was not enough to go around. They were concerned for their families, but also for their neighbors, their community, and their island.
When Rachel and I took a boat ride on the Gulf and viewed the oil and destruction it is causing I recall experiencing an immense feeling of helplessness. Doubting our capabilities, I was unsure if we were really going to make a difference to the hurting community of Grand Isle. After speaking with these people I felt more compelled than ever to help them. In the words of Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski at the press conference on Friday, “To the people of Louisiana: you have great love and determination and we need to have the same as we stand by your side”.