21 September - Habitat for Humanity

As I turned onto the correct street, I was hoping I was wrong. I checked the addresses as I slowly crept along. I made a U-turn in front of my assigned address and parked my car. The house was boarded up. I looked for any sign of life on the premises. As I was making myself very aware of my surroundings and double-checking what was visible in my car from passersby, a blue hatchback with booming music turned the corner and slowed down as it passed my car. It backed up until it was even with me and honked its horn. My heart stopped. I made no eye contact, pretending to search for something that didn’t exist. A man came out of the house I parked in front of and caught his ride, which was patiently waiting.

I brought my camera, wallet and phone and walked to the back of the house. “Hello?” No one answered. This was my first Habitat for Humanity assignment located northwest of downtown Milwaukee. I just kept reminding myself that I was here to do something for someone else. If I didn’t resurface in the process, then it was karma for me. But I realized I never told ANYONE where I was…not even my husband. So I sent a Facebook status of my whereabouts and began receiving texts and phone calls of people checking up on me. (Thank you, by the way. Means more than you know.) I walked back outside to find two women carrying paint buckets and rollers. I introduced myself and met Sara and Rebecca (pseudo name to protect her identity.)

Sara was the Habitat for Humanity site coordinator. I found that she was actually from AmeriCorps and applied to be a part of Milwaukee’s HFH project. She is only 23 and arrived two weeks before, from her native Cleveland. We chatted of how she began in non-profit construction through a mission trip in high school. She assisted on HFH projects in college and pursued a Sociology degree. This seems to be her passion at this stage, as the reality of what she committed to for this year is only began to set in. I asked if she ever feared for her safety. “I live in a neighborhood a little nicer than this, but yes, at first it was scary…walking to my car or to my door. When we are working on a home, we cannot leave anyone alone. We lock the doors if we are upstairs because there have been people who come in and steal things.” Great. Note to self, as I looked to Rebecca and asked, “Got that?”

Rebecca and I spent the whole day together. She seemed somewhat guarded, between 45-50 years old. She told me she was unemployed, but coming to projects such as these is better for her sanity than staying at home. She opened up about her past and beamed when she shared, “But I DID finish high school.” I found myself in a shameful state. So many, myself included, have the fortune to get up and do whatever we please, have a workplace to go, financial worries are not as much a concern, and still, we search for something to satiate… something. Here is a woman who would simply like to work and be busy. She comes to a site just to avoid sitting idle.

She told me of her dreams to begin her own business, as she taught me aspects of her trade and joked about my inconsistent ability in painting the ceilings. I could tell she was conscientious; she could tell I was a goofball. She took pride in her work…even if it were someone else’s home – a stranger, nonetheless. Rebecca shared that she used to work near my current address for over 15 years. The father of her two children still lives in the area with her daughter, but she moved to Milwaukee with her son. She shared some personal things with me, including her son currently serving time in jail. She was regretful of her parenting, perhaps enabling him and didn’t have enough work to keep him busy and out of trouble. I told her parents can only do so much. There comes a time when kids become adults too.

When we continued to talk about family, life and prospects of employment, she shared that she has a felony status. No worries – nothing what you may be thinking. Although, now that I think of it, I never pressed to know what the charges were. It was not any of my business, but hers to share if she chose. We talked with Sara about the potential of Rebecca joining forces with HFH. It seemed her questions showed a slight fear of acceptance and how to work with others. I hugged her, told her this might be the perfect fit for her and that she would never know unless she tried. As I was leaving, she asked, “Will we see each other again?” I told her that I hoped so, and gave her my phone number in case she ever needed anything.

I returned a few days later for a second project, but did not see Rebecca. This home was actually closing that day, so I was privileged to actually meet the homeowners and their interpreter. I was wondering how they found Milwaukee all the way from Africa several years prior. They did not…their government did. They and their children sought refuge and placement to flee from horrible conditions. Hearing the personal horror and torture of Congolese friends David and Regina Bakala, I could only imagine. Glad to witness the difference HFH makes in different pockets of the world. And the smile and laughter this home brought to this family.

I ended the week more appreciative for where I am in my life. I heard a priest once say, “Life will not turn out the way you expect it to. Accept that and know you will be okay. But remember: it is still darn good.” It’s true…take the bad, but make it good. Or at least find the good. It’s all there. So I spent an evening with friends more refreshed and rejuvenated. We celebrated Milwaukee’s inaugural Film Festival at the Discovery World. And ended the week with date night. Of course I have to include some element of food. My husband took me to Chicago’s Sepia in the West Loop. We spent the evening catching up on our week, epiphanies within our relationship, giggling and sending silly texts, acting like kids once again. After an incredible meal, clean plating, pure flavor profiles, we ended with dessert at Jose Garza’s Mercat. We reflected about so many things in our world, and are grateful for it all. I have to say, it was the best birthday to date.

14 September - Organic Harvest & Terminology

Fall harvest...gorgeous weekend weather with cool nights planned. It was time to pick the vegetables and herbs we planted in May (see 5/15 entry.) I realize this is something common for some. But for me and my husband, this was like a 4th grade science experiment where curiosity of the outcome brought us...back to the basics. We found it incredibly rewarding to witness nature work her magic and enjoy the fruits of our labor.

It was imperative to share this experience with others, so we invited friends down for an organic themed dinner. We built the menu around whatever each couple desired to share, the only requirement being to use organic ingredients. We offered the last of our backyard produce -- seven different kinds of tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, various onions, herbs, beans, etc. But the question du jour was what exactly constituted "organic"? One asked if that meant all vegetarian? Or simply no pesticides or hormones? Or use only things from a farmer's market?

What do some of these buzz words mean? In finding some answers, I did some research online, though I still found differences in fact-checking. I also spoke with Proprietor Roger from Blackwing, an organic protein distributor, as well as my dairy consultant friend Mary.

Organic vs. 100% organic – Look for “certified” or "100% organic”. The term "organic" in dairy products must have USDA certification. "For a dairy farm to be certified as organic, there is a list of criteria a farm must meet. A cow that produces organic milk can never be treated with an antibiotic." In certified organic produce, the produce must be grown, stored, processed, packaged and shipped with the avoidance of chemicals (such as pesticides, antibiotics, fertilizers, food additives, etc.) for a minimum of three years. In 100% organic proteins, the lands where the animal grazes and what is fed follow the same suit – grazed and grown in land free of pesticides and chemical fertilizers for a minimum of three years. Organic certification procedures will require that the food producer and/or distributor keeps detailed written records (of where, when, and how the food was produced) and keeps the organic food segregated from non-organic food if working with both foods.

Cage-free – No legal definition or standard. Simply implied.

Free range – Don’t be fooled. To be called free range MAY mean that chickens have access to the outdoors. This could mean they are caged in a barn with only six inches to move left and right but have access to a window. There are no standards. Also, "free range" has nothing to do with "organic." It is not the picture I had in my mind of these fowl happily roaming free, discussing which grain they may try tomorrow while jogging. More exercise, more muscles and less fat? Not necessarily.

Hormone-free - The USDA prohibits any injection of hormones in chicken, so any claim to be hormone-free is no different than its competitor.

Humane-raised – Certain practices must be met, but again, look for the word "Certified". Animals must be allowed to move an 18" circumference. This also refers to how the animal is caught. Some are caught from behind, out of surprise so as to not scare or raise the hormone level of the animal.

So in clearing up terminology, we felt a bit more comfortable in setting the courses. Our final menu?

  • Apple Goat Cheese and Honey Tarts
  • Baked Portobella Bruschetta
  • Pomegranate Avocado Salsa

  • Mixed Greens Salad with a Mustard Vinaigrette Dressing
  • Orange and Lemon Stuffed Rotisserie Chicken
  • Piedmontese Filet Mignon
  • Tomato and Basil Pie
  • Grilled Vegetables

  • Profiteroles with Strawberries and Chocolate Sauce

We were in charge of the main course. The 100% organic chicken and Piedmontese beef was served with the simplest flavors to showcase the freshness of the proteins. In researching local farms and organic proteins, we came across the company Blackwing. The proprietors Roger and Beth were a wealth of information. Over 15 years ago, they began in the farming business in South Dakota raising ostrich, then added buffalo when they realized the "superb quality of the meat. Kosher animals have to be in perfect health." They then sold their four farms and breeders, contracted with the same farmers, opened their distributorship and now support farms in Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Pennsylvania and Canada. Their business and reputation for quality certified and healthy proteins boomed when Nutritionist, Author and Osteopathic Physician Dr. Mercola asked to partner in their offerings – his clients required clean proteins for their diet. Their line has now grown to offer buffalo, Piedmontese beef (just as flavorful and high quality as Kobe, but lower in fat marbelization), ostrich, lamb, venison, elk, chicken, pheasant, quail, duck and hen. Call them directly for questions on everything from nutrition, to recipes to differences in processes.

Through our research, we exchanged what we learned (as well as recipes!) and finished off a wonderful evening of good cheer. We enjoyed organic wine, warm chit chat by the fireplaces and a comfortable slumber under the stars.

Helpful sites: http://www.thegreenguide.com/, http://www.organic-food-for-everyone.com/, http://www.aspca.org/, http://www.omri.org/.
For more information on Blackwing, please visit http://www.blackwing.com/.

For recipes, please email me at mailto:a2009journey@comcast.net