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Katrina on my Mind: Debra South Jones with Just the Right Attitude

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I just finished Standing Up To the Madness: Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary Times by Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman and her brother David. The book’s opening chapter is about Katrina, and how local residents are fighting to get their lives back.

Debra South Jones does not appear within those pages, but she certainly could.  She is the executive director of Just the Right Attitude.  In the late ‘90s, she was an accountant for a local newspaper.  Then, she was diagnosed with both ovarian and thyroid cancer. Her doctors were pessimistic about her chances. Her husband walked out. Although she had medical insurance, it was insufficient. She had to choose between feeding her children and paying $1200 for a month of pain medication. Debra fed her children.  

Desperate and in pain, Debra finally forced herself to apply for food stamps. She was dying, she had two young children, and no husband; she was pretty sure that she would qualify for help. Three and a half hours later, she found herself out on the sidewalk again.  The government had deemed her too well off for food stamps.  At that moment, Debra made a vow to God.  If she survived somehow, she would create an organization that treated needy people with dignity.

Debra opened a food bank based on need, not income, in late 2001. In short order, Just the Right Attitude was providing food for 850 families out of her converted one-car garage.  But, because of a neighbor’s complaint, the operation was to be shut down.

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In stepped local car dealer Troy Duhon.  He had seen a news report about her project’s grand opening, attended by the mayor and various members of the city council.  Duhon offered Debra the top floor of one of his dealerships.  By 2003,  JTRA was serving 4,000 families a month. By the time Katrina struck two years later, demand had doubled.  

Katrina-August 2005

Before it became too late to leave, Debra was evacuated to Atlanta.  Later she learned that  everything she had left behind – car, home, personal belongings – was gone.  Troy Duhon lost everything too, so Debra had the food bank as well as her own situation to worry about.  For eighteen months, Debra lived at her mother’s in Breaux Bridge, over two hundred miles from New Orleans.  Each day began at 4:45, as she drove 3 ½ hours (each way) in a car that a friend gave her.  For the first two months, she worked out of a gutted dealership.  When Troy began rebuilding, she moved to the parking lot of a church across the street. 

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JTRA consisted of two big tents and four storage pods. The big tent morphed into a drive-through food bank, monthly serving 26,000 families. The makeshift kitchen was housed in the second tent. Four small generators fueled rice cookers and electric skillets, while large pots of beans simmered on a two-burner propane stove. 16,000 families received hot breakfast and lunch every month. In cold weather, generator-run heaters warmed the volunteers while they worked. The Porta Potty was in the parking lot. This operation was nothing fancy; nevertheless, it had become a lifeline for struggling families, one day, one meal, at a time.

More than three years after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, Just the Right Attitude still serves 15,000 families every month.  The food bank continues to be filled by Second Harvest and other donors.  Demand still outstrips supply.  JTRA regularly runs food drives to fill the gaps. And because of Debra’s promise to help anyone who asks, JTRA has received no governmental support of any kind.

Debra’s wish list

Debra admits they need more volunteers, more food, and more financial support.  And, there is no end in sight.  For many people, food is just the beginning. Debra saw a gun on the passenger seat of one client’s car.  The woman was planning to commit suicide. The two talked for a while. By the time the woman finally drove away, she was feeling a lot better.  As Debra points out, sometimes people “just need someone to listen.”  

Debra is full of ideas. She mentioned several projects on the back burner for lack of funding.  She wants to get a job skills program going. Affordable housing is a must. Before Katrina, the rent for a one-bedroom apartment was around $400.  Now, Debra says, it has skyrocketed to $1200/month.  With hourly wages between $8-$9.00, there are countless people working full-time who simply can’t afford the available housing. Squeezing into a small apartment together may be the only way two or three families can stave off homelessness.  “It’s not fair”, Debra says.

Seniors need day care. Maintenance medicine is another area Debra would love to sink her teeth into. Twice a week, Baton Rouge sends a medical bus, doctor, nurse and case worker.  If someone fits the income guidelines and fills out all the forms, he/she will receive three months of medication for free. Processing the paperwork can take a month or more, though,  so residents may find themselves temporarily without insulin or other critical medications. To Debra, this situation is unacceptable.

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Despite her cancers, a series of strokes and heart attacks, knee surgery and chronic back pain, Debra South Jones is still very much alive and kicking. Athletes learn to push through the pain, for the duration of a race or a game. Debra’s challenges have lasted – non-stop – for years. One day, her doctor told her he could no longer find the tumor on her thyroid. Through prayer and sheer force of will, she made it disappear. She has applied that same grit to dealing with hunger in her corner of the world.

Ten-second take-away

What can you do to support her good work? Go right now to the JTRA website and prepare to be inspired. Skip the trip to the mall, the fancy wrapping, and another humdrum, totally unnecessary purchase.   Make a donation; give a holiday gift that can really make a difference.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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