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20 March 2012 – Saint George Day 2: On Medicaid and Zion National Park

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17 March 2012 – HALO Departs for Spring Break 2012!



Posted By Elspeth T., Mar 29, 2008

I have always been a cynical person, someone who copes through gallows, dry and tongue-in-cheek humor. But working on the Compelling Stories and viewing the surrounding landscape of Mississippi took my temperament around an even darker, more morose bend.

I spent every second that I worked with the MCJ classifying people's lives and their tragedies. The tragedies of contractor fraud, FEMA evictions/denials, mold or formaldehyde poisoning, landlord & tenant hostilities and a plethora of other atrocities. However, they became routine. How do you even say that? Someone's personal tragedy isn't extreme enough, it's "routine." These are Finella working on laptop while Elspeth reads legal paperspeople's lives. Their Lives. And I could dismiss them in a manner of minutes as not worth enough to be potentially used to illustrate the plight of Mississippians to the world. Some of the case files consist of a simple referral to this center or to another attorney but no more on the person's actual situation. Perhaps it's the "best" to demonstrate the actual situation, but I don't have the time to call and follow up. After I finished a pile of cases, I received a hundred more. By the end of the day, if you couldn't impress me with something that broke the routine, they went back into their file, back into a box with hundreds of others just like them.

And the worst part? At the end of the day I felt I have accomplished nothing. I have gone through heartbreaking tales, but I felt utterly empty. The other groups came back with stories of triumph, of making a difference and feeling good about what they did. When we had a group check-in to talk about our experiences, only the Compelling Stories group couldn't say that they felt that they were making a difference in people's lives and feeling instant gratification of their good deeds. Fortunately, the attorneys at MCJ could completely relate to how we were feeling, because they actually had to hear these tales and take down the information we were classifying. Maybe we'll all feel accomplished later, but right now it feels like a drop in the ocean.

Of course, there are moments that truly take your breath away at the endurance of the human spirit. A group of us went to a restaurant for dinner on Wed. night where we met the most wonderful woman. Though she's surrounded by the decay of a forgotten city, she still brightened the room. She lifted our spirits while she served us our meal. Even though my compatriots and I go through the worst flaws of the human race, insurmountable human degradation for hours on end, this woman decided to stay. To stay and put on more than a bright smile. She is thriving in SPITE of the horrendous conditions surrounding her. And seeing that tiny pearl joy of brings clarity to the whole of my experience. We're here for them, not ourselves. We are here to prove not to them but to ourselves that we will not forget. That we will not toss them aside like the rest of the country and the media. Our position is not one of condescension but of understanding. Not rhetorical positions but actual work to benefit all involved.

The attorneys working at MCJ are some of the most incredible people I have ever had the privilege of meeting. Their strength was a constant inspiration. Watching John argue in front of the Mississippi Supreme Court on the moral indignation of an employee when she was told to lie to people seeking shelter after Katrina about the availability of rooms in a hotel and charge more thanHALO members eating double per person. Or Reilly with his boundless energy and his willingness to sit down with all of us to make sure we were truly cognizant of the situation in Mississippi. Crystal was always available with all our questions, and I can't tell you how incredible it is to show her a list of potential people to call and to have her remember so many tiny details about them. I went through hundreds of files with my coworkers, but Crystal knew them by heart. And, of course, Denise always helped us with any questions we had and gave us the true Mississippi experience. Before we left, she bought about 40 lbs. of crawfish. We all had a good ol' time ripping them apart.

Yet for all this, it's not enough. I came out with a deeper respect and understanding of the hardships this place has experienced. But the absolute ignorance from the rest of the population is disgusting. I sat next to a man on the flight back from New Orleans to Dallas. When we got to talking, he asked me how I had enjoyed New Orleans. When I informed him that I had gone to do legal work in Mississippi, he told me Roofless boarded up brick building, with piles of bricks fallen around itpoint blank that Mississippi didn't need the help, because they had funding that Louisiana didn't. I told him about all the destroyed homes surrounding the rebuilt casinos. His response was along the lines that they were lucky to have those casinos because they make money. Never mind the fact that the casinos are part of the problem! Never mind that the casinos are selfishly pocketing all the revenues but are leaving the actual residents of Mississippi to fend for themselves! Of course, he didn't stop there but said that "those people" should just move and that it shouldn't be rebuilt at all, because it's below sea-level and a waste of taxpayers' dollars. I was so thoroughly disgusted with his statements that I literally could not help myself from going slack jaw with revulsion. The image I've included demonstrates the disparity between his beliefs and the cruel reality of the situation.

Of course, this "gentleman" is not alone in his sentiments. Many people are in agreement, because they do not know. Or perhaps this selective memory loss enables them to make it through their days. I feel so disjointed. I feel angry, helpless to remedy it all.

So, now we're back in California. I'm supposed to go back to what I was doing before. To feel like the world is a friendly, wonderful place. To study the law like nothing bad is happening in the Gulf Coast region. That those people's lives are magically going to turn around. That everything will be rainbows and kittens. It's not. I don't know if it ever will be.

Debris covered beach with sign

(Reads: Please Excuse Our Mess As We Clean Up From Storm Damage)