The couple attended the Workers Memorial Day observance at the Labor Temple in April as always. It would have been a perfect time to corner the retired snowbirds about their winter down south, but it wasn't going to happen. Jean had to get to the Used-a-Bit store where she volunteers. That's how it goes with the Whelans.
Clarence, who retired as Business Manager of IBEW Local 242 in March 1994, and Jean returned from Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas in their motorhome April 1.
Sounds like an American success story doesn't it? Retirees enjoying the good life, roaming the warm southern states, while they wait for it to warm up back home. The truth is, the world would be a much better place if more retirees were the Whelan variety of snowbird.
"Jean and Clarence are wonderful people," said Daphne German, relief director of the Bayou Recovery Project in Bayou La Batre, Alabama. Two years after Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf Coast is still in desperate need of people with the skills and work ethic the Whelans possess to help with recovery efforts, German said.
Just before the Whelans left their North Shore home after the holidays for their trip down south, they were watching Jay Leno's show and former President Jimmy Carter was the guest.
"Carter made an appeal for volunteers to help Habitat for Humanity and ACORN with recovery efforts," said Clarence, who has a relative that works for ACORN, a national coalition of community groups that helps low income people with housing and other issues (www.acorn.org) "Jean and I decided we should do that."
By Jan. 5, they had driven to New Orleans and found the ACORN office. Half a dozen Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) were there also ready to help.
|Jean and Clarence Whelan "on the job" in a hurricane-devastated neighborhood.
"I found out where IBEW Local 130's offices were in New Orleans, drove over there, told them what we wanted to do, and they were happy to give me a letter saying they approved of any work we were volunteering to do," said Clarence. "We wanted to be sure we weren't stepping on anybody's toes."
For the next three months the Whelans found out how much help is still needed from Katrina's devastation of the Gulf Coast.
"We (the Whelans and the CAW members) got a shotgun apartment, two 12-foot
by 80-foot side-by-side apartments, that had been under 8 to 9 feet of water in the 9th Ward, that took Katrina's worst hit," said Clarence. "Around here we would have probably just knocked it down but people need housing bad so we gutted it for three days, then repaired floor joists, jacked the ceiling up and redid the whole thing."
The Whelans parked their motorhome in a state park, packed a lunch box in the mornings and drove to "work" often six days a week. Soon they were at ACORN's new home construction projects.
One night upon returning home from work they found a note on their motorhome asking if they could help some college students on a St. Bernard Project (www.StBernardProject.org) that needed some adult supervision.
"Then we ended up helping a widow on her house in Violet," said Clarence.
Soon it was time to meet up with their own family for a real Whelan vacation in Corpus Christi, Texas. They drove there for a week, and returned to help on the widow's project.
"We did any and everything on the projects," said Clarence.
About the end of February the Whelans figured they should move on to some more vacationing and so they headed to Florida as they'd planned.
"We like to drive the back roads and ended up stopping at a feed store in Alabama," said Clarence. "I asked a guy in line for directions and he asked me where we'd been after he gave us directions. Turns out he worked with the Bayou Recovery Project in Bayou La Batre, Alabama (www.bayourecovery.org) and he asked if we could help them for a couple of days. We stayed three weeks doing the same stuff we had done in New Orleans."
By the end of March it was time to come home...and rest.
"We had fun and worked hard, Jean worked really hard the whole time too, and we met a lot of fine people," said Clarence. "Those Canadians were plant maintenance Auto Workers and had a lot of skills, and we met other Canadians too that felt they needed to go down there to help, just like the college kids had."
Back home now, it's time for gardening, fishing, and, okay, the garage needs a roof and siding.
So what about next winter?
"Everywhere we volunteered they asked if we'd be back and we told them we just might be," said Clarence. "There's still such a big need for help down there and there still will be next winter. I'd be too hot to be down there now."
The Whelans said it's a good way for retirees to spend their winter helping others.
"Anyone interested can call us and we can help them get involved," said Clarence. Their number is (218) 525-1689.
"In Alabama we got to park behind the fire hall and got free hook-ups and they fed us," said Clarence.
Try to beat that, snowbirds.
Larry Sillanpa edits the Duluth Labor World, the official publication of the Duluth Central Labor Body, AFL-CIO. Visit the newspaper's website, www.laborworld.org