i don’t even know where to begin with east st louis. the weekend was an exercise in frustration and bonding. i had a terrific time with my classmates; conversely i am so frustrated with what we failed to accomplish.
i don’t know how to describe to you the devastation and decay we saw this weekend. beautiful old homes across the street from burnt-out, boarded-up, condemned ones. stray dogs everywhere. on every corner a failed business, a condemned home, a vacant lot filled with trash and stripped-down cars. a city that has lost 25% of its population in the last 10-20 years. a city with almost literally NO industry, save that which is creeping back in. this was the first time i’ve been on a tour that included ten minutes about the gas station and how the community fought to bring it in. the woman narrating the tour told us that for a long time you couldn’t order a pizza in east st louis. next week she will lose her job because her outreach organization has to downsize.
our job was to refurbish computers to be given to local families whose children had gone through a computer training course at one of the community centres that houses a lab set up by our professor’s class a few years ago. we came with vans full of equipment and were met with an additional uhaul of donated computers. friday was spent organizing and inventorying all of these donated machines, making sure that each had a hard drive, modem, disk drive, and a cd-rom drive. small groups broke off to do surveys of the sites where they will be doing follow-up work in april – a local library the size of my apartment, a church group, another community outreach organization. it was disorganized from the get-go, with the people in charge off on the site surveys and the rest of us figuring things out as we went along. by five we were exhausted but stayed up late playing cards and drinking cheap beer in our professor’s room, laughing and getting to know each other now that the semester’s half gone.
today – today was different. having inventoried the computers, today we set out to image the hard drives and prepare the computers for distribution. none of us knew how to image, save the two volunteers. again we were learning and flying by the seats of our collective pants – and then things started going wrong. drivers were missing. disk drives didn’t work. hard drives didn’t work. IDE cables broke. promises for equipment were made that grossly outstripped anything we were capable of, even in our wildest imaginings. oh, and did i mention that i had/have no voice? at two, after scrambling to get work done, after half the group not getting lunch, we had five computers to give out. five out of the promised twenty-eight. five. we couldn’t believe it. after all the work we’d done for the last two days – five. and the kicker of it all was that one family sent its members in separately, and so took home three computers. so after all the work done by twenty plus people – three families got computers.
we drove home tonight exhausted and demoralized. there is such a need, and our part was already so small – and to have the end result be even smaller? it broke my heart. i know our efforts were appreciated, and i know that the computers we left behind will be finished by other volunteers and given to the remaining families – but five? that’s it? that’s all we could accomplish in two days’ work? i just – i think i’m too tired to really be coherent about this right now, but i’m really frustrated. i wish i – we – could do more.