Emergency Communities (Nola) Supported By Ms. Midler And Others

College buddies cook up community cafe
The 9th Ward facility has relief on menu
Monday, August 06, 2007
By Valerie Faciane
Staff writer

When college buddies Mark Weiner and Mischa Byruck landed in New Orleans almost two years ago, they never dreamed they’d still be here helping storm victims.

But every day hundreds of people make their way to the Goin’ Home Community Cafe in the Lower 9th Ward to enjoy home-cooked meals prepared by volunteers the 25-year-old activists helped recruit.

The cafe on St. Claude Avenue is the latest to be opened by Emergency Communities, a nonprofit founded by Weiner and Byruck in November 2005 to provide services to thousands of people whose lives were devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Residents know they are always welcome to eat, wash and dry clothes, use computers or just sit and rest.

Emergency Communities has been so successful that it has garnered the support of the United Way of Greater New Orleans, chef Emeril Lagasse, singer Bette Midler and donors across the country.

Weiner and Byruck have also set up an emergency response unit that can be quickly dispatched to future disasters across the country — using the work they are doing in New Orleans as a model.

Not bad for two recent college graduates.

Thousands served

Weiner, the executive director, and Byruck, who up until two months ago served as the director of development, said creating community in a time of disaster is the concept behind their pet project.

The community cafes they’ve set up have served hundreds of thousands of meals and served as critical community gathering spots in the devastated parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines and Orleans.

These days Weiner spends much of his time writing grant proposals and overseeing the day-to-day operations of the organization.

But Byruck will soon leave the organization. He was recently chosen as a Ford Foundation fellow, largely based upon his work with Emergency Communities. This summer he is studying the public health effects of farmers markets and in the fall will go to work for marketumbrella.org, a local nonprofit that operates the Crescent City Farmers Market. He said he plans to keep his connection with Emergency Communities as a board member.

“There’s a lot of similarities between creating a successful farmers market and creating a successful community center,” Byruck said.

Weiner and Byruck met at Columbia University in New York City, where both majored in history and studied abroad together in Chile.

After graduation in 2004, Weiner, from a working-class family in Chicago, worked as a paralegal and planned to attend law school.

Byruck grew up in Berkeley, Calif., before his family moved to Cambridge, Mass., where he attended private school. After Columbia, he first worked for the group ACORN in Kansas City, Mo., before moving to San Francisco to pursue a career as a freelance journalist.

Angered by response

Even though both men lived far from the Gulf Coast, Katrina’s wrath drew them in.

Five days after the storm, Weiner hosted a fundraiser at his New York apartment to benefit storm victims. He bought a keg of beer and charged his friends a $10 entrance fee. It generated a few hundred dollars, but that didn’t nearly satisfy Weiner, who said he was infuriated at the federal government’s slow response to storm victims.

“After that benefit I realized that I would have a year before law school, and I decided to quit my job and come down for a year,” Weiner said.

At first, Weiner had trouble finding a relief group that had the capacity to accept volunteers. When Byruck told him of his plans to volunteer at a soup kitchen in Waveland, Miss., both headed south.

At the New Waveland Cafe, the pair helped serve about 1,000 meals each day. The excitement of that work left the men and other workers wanting to do more after the cafe closed on Thanksgiving 2005.

Had there not been such a vacuum in leadership, Byruck said he would have spent about a month here and returned to San Francisco. But, “there was so much to be done and we were the ones doing it, and so there was no reason to stop.”

Using the model from the New Waveland Cafe, Weiner envisioned doing the same kind of work in the New Orleans area through grants and donations. He incorporated Emergency Communities to offer meals, holistic medical care, house-gutting services and distribution of goods — all free of charge to recipients.

The United Way signed on as a backer early on. Since Katrina, it has given Emergency Communities more than $700,000.

United Way President Gary Ostroske said he was impressed with Emergency Communities from the beginning. He calls the group’s volunteers — which to date have numbered about 4,300 — the “United Way Marines,” who fearlessly ventured into devastated areas bringing their own supplies.

“They are very self-sufficient,” Ostroske said. “During the early stages in the recovery, they provided a feeding program when there were very few if any alternatives. They’d go to places where there were no kitchens and they brought their own. They’d go to places where there was no electricity and they brought their own generators. They’d go to places with no shelter and they brought their own tents.”

Other major backers of Emergency Communities include the Women’s National Democratic Club, Jimmy Buffett’s “Singing for Change” and Bread for the World. Its largest in-kind donors have been Sanderson Farms, Organic Valley, Second Harvest and USA Harvest.

Focused on Goin’ Home

The first Emergency Communities’ cafe, called Made With Love Cafe in St. Bernard, closed in June 2006. That was followed by the Y Cafe Community Center in Buras, which stayed open until this June.

Now the group is focused on the Goin’ Home cafe, where, in addition to its regular services, Emergency Communities has instituted a summer camp for children and a home-rebuilding program for residents of the Lower 9th Ward. The organization also runs a similar summer camp for children living in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer community in Diamond in partnership with the YMCA.

While the group eventually does leave a community, it helps residents interested in continuing the services to set up their own nonprofit organization.

“We give large amounts of material and some financial support to the new permanent community centers,” Byruck said.

What keeps everyone motivated, Weiner said recently, is that every day brings a new challenge.

“It stays exciting because we keep changing and adding programs,” he said.

Weiner said he has put off law school indefinitely to run the nonprofit as long as it is needed. When he does pull up stakes with his emergency response unit — a semi with a kitchen, multiple large tents, generators, water purifiers, food and supplies — it will be to respond to the next disaster.

“We’ve been blessed and honored to have so much support from around the country,” Weiner said.

Added Byruck: “We’ve been inspired by the depths of character and resilience of the people that we have served.”

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