Before the presidency was decided, two houses were rented in D.C. for the direct and indirect descendents of Henry and Rebecca Heard. Our ages ranged from 12 to 76 with the majority being teenagers and young adults.
There is no way to describe the excitement as we caravanned from Georgia to D.C. With every mile “reunion cousins” became best friends, sharing life experiences and philosophies.
By the time we located our houses, inflated air mattresses, and wondered how a house full of girls could get by with one closet-sized bathroom, it was time for the nighttime tour of the national monuments. As you can imagine this Southern delegation made an impression everywhere we went.
On the first day we divided into groups of common interest and spent the day sight-seeing. In spite of the freezing temperatures, we spent the day out and about and couldn’t wait to share our adventures, especially the group that got a glimpse of the about-to-be-President Obama after talking their way past the security at Arlington Cemetery.
At the end of the day, we gathered at the “big house” for dinner organized by Chef Janie Davis. As the conversation escalated, we decided we needed a little organization. “Circle time” was born and became a tradition.
During the inauguration festivities, Michelle Obama challenged the nation to make MLK Day a day of service. Grace Glanton proclaimed, “I’m going to pick up litter for my service.” The idea quickly caught on.
As the holiday came to an end, we knew we wanted to do it again. Summer beach trips were discussed, but seemed frivolous after such a meaningful weekend. The seed for C.H.A.N.G.E. (Cousins Having a New Generational Experience) was planted and commitments made to spend future MLK weekends doing service together. Work has kept me from participating every year, but the story needs to be told.
Laurel Davis became the event coordinator and the following year the group drove to New Orleans. While there, they were given sling-blades to clear the overgrown underbrush at a displayed church. While some worked outside, others spent time inside the church cleaning and painting. Although the work was grunt work, the feeling of personal achievement was abundant.
The most impactful part of that trip occurred in Ward 9, the area hit hardest by Katrina. The cousins were instructed to go house-to-house to get signatures on petitions to re-open schools in the area. The resident children were being bused all over the city and needed local schools to reconvene.
The volunteers discovered that the residents of this devastated neighborhood needed someone to listen to their stories. They sat spellbound hearing first-hand stories about the tragedy that flooded the lives of the citizens more powerfully than the waters of the Mississippi did the land. It was life-changing and humbling. During the 2010 year, a handful of “friends of cousins” joined the group and became lifetime relatives – once you’re a Heard Girl, you are always a Heard Girl.
The following year, we headed to Nashville where we painted half-way housing occupied by female prostitutes and recovering drug addicts. We worked alongside the residents and listened with rapt attention to the advice about staying off the slippery slope of addiction. The lesson was potent.
In 2012, the group reconvened in Savannah, Ga., and volunteered at a thriving thrift store that supported the homeless shelter. They sorted piles and piles of donated clothing. It was a business lesson as well as an opportunity to see first-hand that designer clothing labels don’t really matter.
This week the group went to Charleston. Previously the group worked directly with the underbelly of our society. On this trip, however, they learned a different lesson. They worked with a couple who were days away from losing their Italian restaurant and being on the streets. The business had received local assistance and is scheduled to re-open soon. The place needed a total make-over and the energy of girls who showed up with paint brushes, cleaning rags, and elbow grease.
At the circle time that night, the discussion led to a debate of whether this was truly service since the restaurant was for profit. The A-HA moment happened when the group realized that assisting to prevent poverty is as important as helping those in poverty.
The most amazing thing about the recent trip though was working with Rev. George Jenkins and his ministry to prison men – not your basic white-collar criminal, but hard-core criminals. It was impressive that these girls, although cautious about safety, worked with confidence alongside parolees painting and cleaning. But the real “attention-grabber” of the weekend was during lunch. Someone asked George about his journey. They were little prepared for the story they heard from a man with a troubled past including extremely violent involvement with the Black Panthers, Malcolm X and membership in the Black Muslim organization. This man was not your typical “do-gooder.” He was once a prisoner and gun-wielding fugitive on the run. I can only imagine the eyes-wide-open faces of the girls as they heard his story of redemption.
In my conversation with Laurel this week, I realized that these experiences have been life-changing for the volunteers as well as for the recipients of their work. I’ve missed some of the trips, but have marked my calendar for the trip to Alabama in 2014.
Once a Heard girl, always a Heard Girl.
This is dedicated to the Heard Girls – Davises, Diments, Glantons, Roops, Garretts, Armisteads and Allens. Visit www.cousins12to77.blogspot.com to see documentation of earlier years.
Garrett, a Carroll County resident, writes a weekly column for the Times-Georgian.