When Lorna Bourg asked Mayor Tim Kerner of Jean Lafitte, “… If there were three businesses that we could help restore, what would they be?” He said, “They wouldn’t be in my town. They would be one mile south of here in Lafitte. If we could get those three restaurants up and running, they would hire people from my town. We could have food in our area. We could have tourists coming back, and the shrimp boats would have a place to sell their shrimp.”
So Lorna and Sister Helen Vinton, along with SMHA Board Member and State Representative Sydnie Mae Durand, drove down to Lafitte and stopped first at Boutte’s Restaurant. There was sludge and mud everywhere. Everything was in ruins. A lady and two men were there attempting to clean up. They were all oozing in mud.
Lorna said, “Hi, I’m Lorna Bourg,” and started a conversation. As they sat on the porch, the woman started talking. She introduced herself as Kate, and her ex-husband and current husband, who as it turns out are best friends.
Kate is this remarkable woman who, when her marriage didn’t work, sat down with her ex-husband, R.J., and she said, “We have children together. We had a life together. We like each other. Just because our marriage didn’t work doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stay in business together.” R.J.’s parents had originally started the restaurant.
Why was R.J. ready to walk away?
Kate explained that Hurricane Katrina took their roof off, and they lost about $16,000 worth of seafood. It took all of their savings to get back in operation, but they recovered from Katrina. Then Rita came just a few short weeks later and flooded their restaurant with four feet of water, destroying all of their equipment and furnishings. There was about $200,000 worth of ruined equipment and furnishings sitting out in front of their business that they had already pulled out of the restaurant.
R.J. said he was ready to walk away, but Kate said she didn’t care if she had to borrow a pot to boil hot dogs for the workers; she wanted to reopen the restaurant. He said she told him, “This is our life, this is our business and our community, and the people who work here depend on us. We can’t just walk away. So let’s just start.”
Why did Kate send Lorna and Helen down the road?
They started hauling out things to begin the cleanup, and that’s when Lorna and Helen arrived. Lorna and Helen told Kate that Southern Mutual didn’t have any government money, but asked her if it would help if Southern Mutual could get some volunteers to come down and help with the cleanup and repair work.
Although Kate said that would be helpful, she quickly said, “You see about 50 feet down the road? That’s Jan’s Restaurant. He had 8 feet of water in his place. He needs help even more than we do. He is going to have to raise his building, and it’s going to take about $18,000. So he needs more help.”
This demonstrated a key value that Southern Mutual has found is important in building healthy, prosperous communities — a spirit of generosity. Kate also exhibited two other important values—self-help and a spirit of appreciation. She appreciated Lorna and Helen stopping by and appreciated the volunteers that SMHA later sent to help her.
In addition to helping families and businesses in need, Southern Mutual also wants to support and encourage attitudes and values like Kate’s — values that you used to see in the old days: people helping each other and a spirit of generosity and appreciation.
What’s the Martha’s Vineyard / Jean Lafitte connection?
After returning to New Iberia, Helen got a call from the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center. They wanted to help a family, and Helen said, “How about helping a whole community?”
They asked how they could do that, and Helen said, “By helping us rebuild a business in a community that employs a lot of local people.” Helen learned that Boutte’s Restaurant needed a flash freezer. She got the specifications from Kate, and the people on Martha’s Vineyard raised the money and shipped a flash freezer to help get the restaurant up and running.
Why would a smart businesswoman pay 22 percent interest?
When Lorna and Helen went back to visit Kate again, the restaurant was just about ready to reopen. When they looked around, Lorna noticed that Kate had all of these new tables and chairs. Lorna asked Kate how she got them. Kate said, “I never had a credit card, but we couldn’t open without tables and chairs and the banks were not lending money. So I went and got a credit card, and I put all the tables and chairs and one cooler on my credit card.”
Lorna said, “At 22 percent interest?” Kate said, “Yes. I’ve never done that before, but we did not know what else to do. I got together with everyone at the restaurant, and we said all of the money that comes in will first go to pay off that credit card, and they agreed.”
Lorna said, “Like I told you, we don’t have any government money but if we could raise $5,000, would that be helpful?” Kate said it would mean she could pay the credit card off right away. She only put $6,000 on the credit card.
Shortly after that Judy Herring, head of SMHA’s Directorate of Family and Community Affairs, drove down to Lafitte and delivered a $5,000 check made possible through a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Along with the check Southern Mutual sent a letter congratulating Kate and her crew on their courage and recovery and closed by saying, “The only thing we ask is that you tell the story of your journey and of Southern Mutual’s partnership with you.”
Well, a couple of weeks later, a large envelope arrived at SMHA’s office. In included a handwritten letter from Kate telling her story. She thanked Southern Mutual and the Martha’s Vineyard folks and sent pictures. One picture featured all the workers at the restaurant holding up big signs saying “Thank You Southern Mutual.”
This story is an example of how Southern Mutual operates differently from government. Government has historically taught families to work a system of “need, greed and speed” — long lines, endless forms and questions about personal business, and one size fits all.
SMHA wants to build healthy prosperous rural communities. In addition to assessing needs using on-the-ground and community intelligence, Southern Mutual seeks to reinforce the community-building values and behaviors of self help, a spirit of generosity and a culture of appreciation. Southern Mutual wants families to learn to work this system.