Change your life, change the world 

Linda Edwards and Nicole Gale-Evans

Pickin’ Up the Pieces after Katrina


When Hurricane Katrina hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast in August 2005, Linda Edwards was six months into her new life as a stay-at-home mom with her eleven-month-old son and seventh grade daughter, after a ten-year career as an administrator in Savannah’s federal court. 

Sixteen months later, her life at home with the kids includes a component that is rare in most families—recruiting volunteers, collecting donated building materials, coordinating fundraising, and leading relief trips from Savannah to Pearlington, Mississippi, as the volunteer Administrative Director of Pickin’ Up the Pieces, a Savannah non-profit relief organization founded by her husband Michael Edwards in the first weeks after the storm, returning from a hastily organized solo trip to deliver water, diapers and other basic supplies.

“He drove as far as he could,” says Linda. “On the drive back he decided it needed to be continued. That’s when he formed Pickin’ Up the Pieces.”

While Pickin’ Up the Pieces is a team effort for the Edwards, Linda has handled most of the heavy lifting of planning and implementing various projects, volunteering about 30 hours per week on the organization’s projects.

“I’ve been to Mississippi eight or nine times now.  I’ve lost track,” says Linda.

Since September 2005 the non-profit has distributed $70,000 worth of school supplies, clothes, food, holiday gifts, and construction materials, and has sent 175 people in fourteen rebuilding teams--many for multiple trips--to the tiny town of Pearlington, perched on the Mississippi-Louisiana border and eight miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s a little group of houses out in a very rural area,” she says.  “It was probably a week before anyone realized they were there and needed help, to get any meaningful relief after the storm.”

Official and unofficial partners with Pickin’ Up the Pieces include Armstrong Atlantic State University, Charles Ellis Montessori Academy, Temple Mickve Israel, and Asbury Memorial United Methodist Church, where the Edwards’ are members.

Nicole Gale-Evans is a volunteer who’s made several trips to Pearlington.  At age 13, she is much younger than the typical relief worker, and has homework, youth group, and a busy middle school social schedule to juggle, yet Nicole’s family is supportive of her commitment to the cause. It helps that she is Linda Edwards’ daughter. 

“My first trip was in Thanksgiving 2005,” says the Oglethorpe Academy eighth grader.  “When I got there it was worse than I could possibly imagine… different from seeing it on TV.”

“When I went to the Pearlington elementary school and saw the books and mud all over the floor—I thought, if that ever happened in Savannah, that could be my school.”

“There were kids down there that I thought were extraordinary,” says Nicole, “to go through what they have and still be happy.  That got me to go back again.  Each time there was a feeling or a thought that kept me motivated.

“The people seem to be so appreciative and grateful, and in such great spirits,” she says.  “If you were to meet them on the streets you wouldn’t think they had a care in the world.”

The positive attitudes of the people of Pearlington belie the slow progress of rebuilding.  “The need still exists.” says Linda.  “There is more space in my dining room than in those FEMA trailers.  There are families of three, four and five living in them.” 

“I can only imagine what it can be like, living there day in day out, and not being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Waiting for their number.  Is today going to be the day that someone says ‘We can help you?’ That’s where they are.”

“Because of the magnitude [of destruction] there are a lot of people totally dependent on others coming to their aid.”

“Pickin’ Up the Pieces has changed Pearlington,” says Nicole.  “They weren’t getting a lot of help.  If we hadn’t gone there it may still be in the same state of devastation that we found it.”

“It’s brought a lot of people from across the country and the world together to help rebuild an area of the country that was absolutely devastated,” says Linda.

“Not only are we helping a community that is ten hours away, we hope that we are helping our community.”

“I think that with this opportunity I’ve been able to overcome some of my weaknesses,” says Nicole.  “I’ve become more giving.  It’s given me the experience of learning how to serve.

“It gives us something to share and talk about that nobody else knows,” she says.  “If my mom is talking about something I can say ‘I was there. I know what she is talking about.

“There are people who want to volunteer and something gets in the way or they’re not sure about it.  I wish they would go for it. I think once they go down there it will be a life-changing experience.” ƒç


To volunteer or donate to Pickin’  Up the Pieces contact:

P.O. Box 9634

Savannah, GA 31412

Telephone: 912.429.4220


website:  www.pickinupthepieces.org


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Roger Smith

Advancing Humanities at Senior Citizens, Inc.


What does the study of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the Savannah civil rights movement, and the origins of Middle Eastern society have to do with changing the world?  Just about everything, according to Roger Smith, Director of Community Outreach at Senior Citizens, Inc.

“I believe the humanities can change the world,” says Smith. “When we study the great thinkers of the past it holds up a mirror of us to humankind.  Our best potential and our worst potential.  Looking at eons of human behavior can help us to become better humans to each other.”

Smith has spent most of his career as a champion for the humanities--as a high school teacher and developing programs for Massie Heritage Center and Georgia Historical Society.  He’s bringing that experience to his latest role, spearheading The Learning Center at Senior Citizens, Inc., the new “college campus-style center for lifelong learning” opening in January at the agency’s headquarters in Ardsley Park neighborhood.

Smith’s new project is a life change for him.  “I’ve never worked in a social services environment before. I’ll be given a crash course on what it’s like to provide social services to a community.”

The Learning Center is the most visible offering to date from Senior Citizen’s “NORC” project, funded by a grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta that focuses on neighborhoods in which a higher-than-average percentage of people older than 55 are choosing to live.  Historic Ardsley Park in Savannah’s midtown is one of these “naturally occurring retirement communities.” 

While much of the NORC project is about identifying seniors in need of meals, home repair, transportation and the like, the grant asked Senior Citizens, Inc. to “listen to what the seniors in that community tell you they want,” says Smith, whose job description includes management of the entire NORC project. “And what the seniors of Ardsley told us they wanted was a nearby, rigorous, low-cost educational outlet.”

In the first term for the Learning Center, eight nine-week courses in literature, history, and foreign policy will be taught by experienced instructors, most holding masters and doctorate degrees.  All courses will be held on Wednesdays during the daytime, responding to another identified need for educational options that do not require nighttime travel.

“We’re trying to reach a demographic that doesn’t necessarily think of themselves as needing our services.  People who would not want to go to a traditional senior center. They are actively plugged into the community.” 

To kick off the opening of The Learning Center, Senior Citizens is bringing actress Dixie Carter to the Lucas Theatre on January 22.  The 67-year-old actress, currently appearing in a cameo role on the hit TV show Desperate Housewives, will make her first-ever visit to Savannah to present “The Ageless Life of the Mind.”

“Her husband [actor Hal Holbrook] was very desirous that she come to Savannah and that she perform in this particular theater,” says Smith.  “She wrote ‘because it is Savannah and because it is this theater I will come.’

“I don’t think we are getting a canned event,” Smith adds.  “She has asked us a lot of questions about the center, the event, the city. She has gotten what amounts to a papal dispensation from ‘Desperate Housewives’ to come here for this appearance.”

Eight institutional partners in The Learning Center range from Georgia Public Broadcasting to Savannah State University to Georgia Historical Society, Smith’s employer for the past six years.  GHS executive director Todd Groce is teaching the American Civil War course.  “I thought GHS would probably do something but I never dreamed that they would commit to two nine-week classes and that Todd would take the first shift,” says Smith. “That was extremely gratifying.”

Courses have a “loose age minimum of 55,” says Smith.  “If someone wants to come who is under 55 I’m not going to forbid them, as long as they are not displacing someone who is 55 or over.

“I’m proud that this organization serves such a wide cross section of the community,” says Smith.  There is nothing elite about this organization.  Whatever I can do to broaden the spectrum of people served by Senior Citizens, I am pleased to be doing that.” ƒç


Classes for Winter Term begin January 10. Contact Roger Smith at The Learning Center at Senior Citizens, Inc. 236-0363


“The Ageless Life of the Mind” A Visit With Dixie Carter: Monday, Jan 22.  7:00 p.m. at The Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn Street.

Free admission.


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Elena Santamaria

Medical Translator,   Breast Cancer Survivor


For hundreds of Memorial Health patients and their families this past year, Elena Santamaria made a life-and-death impact. Yet Santamaria is not a doctor, a nurse, or a medical technician. 

As coordinator of Interpretation Services for Memorial, Santamaria provides patients who don’t speak English with the ability to communicate vital medical information to doctors, family members and staff.

Within weeks of being hired in August 2005 in the patient relations department, Santamaria realized that Memorial’s translation toolkit was low in an important component—the personal touch. As a native of Cuba who immigrated to the U.S. at age 5, Santamaria understands the isolation that results from living in a place where the language is unfamiliar. 

But it was Santamaria’s own life-changing experience as a breast cancer survivor that helped her to identify the need for on-site translators. Eight years ago a mammogram detected a lump that led to a mastectomy, breast reconstruction, and chemotherapy.  She’s been cancer free for seven years.

“When I see a patient, I have been there,” says Santamaria. nilI have a lot of compassion for them, especially cancer patients,” she says. “Many times I share with them that I am a survivor. When they say to me ‘You look healthy,’ that right there gives them inspiration that they can conquer this and continue with their life.”

Memorial Health has long had a system in place to provide translation by telephone in over 160 languages. Using “the blue telephones,” special phones with two receivers that set up three-way conversations with a New York-based interpreter service, patients and doctors are able to exchange information in an adequate, if impersonal manner.  But many situations that arise at the hospital are only partially resolved by the “blue telephone” method.

Santamaria recalls a Spanish-speaking older woman who had a medical emergency while passing through Savannah alone on her way to Florida. The ambulance called ahead that translation services were needed. “I met her in the emergency room,” says Santamaria.  “It was good for the patient. She felt at ease knowing that someone knows her language.”

Medical translation is a unique field. Even those fluent in foreign languages often find their medical vocabularies to be limited or non-existent. Santamaria is trained and certified as a Spanish-language medical interpreter and an instructor for other translators.

According to Santamaria, the vast majority of non-English speaking patients at Memorial are native Spanish-speaking. Vietnamese and Chinese speaking patients are frequent, along with Japanese and Russian. 

The Spanish speaking patient load is large enough that in the first twelve months of the on site translator program, two other translators in addition to Santamaria worked regularly with Memorial patients, typically making a dozen or more patient visits each day. 

Santamaria’s goal is to offer on-site translators in the other four most common foreign languages, and to provide medical translation training to the many Memorial staff members who speak other languages fluently.

“I got a letter recently from a doctor stating that when I was there with the patient and physician that he didn’t know there was a language barrier.” Santamaria and the other trained translators encourage patient and doctor to maintain eye contact with each other when speaking, rather than looking at the interpreter. “The doctor can communicate a lot with gestures,” says Santamaria. 

  “In one critical case, a young Mexican woman went into a coma. The doctor called me to say that we had to tell the family we needed to talk about disconnecting life support and donating her organs. It would have been very difficult for something like that to use the telephones. I feel that by being present we were able to let them know that their sister was able to continue living through donating her organs,” she says.

Santamaria is a champion for early cancer detection, particularly in the Latino community. She has collaborated with the American Cancer Society and local Latino organizations to conduct outreach activities targeting Spanish-speaking women.

“I am here to tell you that mammograms save lives,” she says. “I didn’t have any symptoms.  I felt great. I could not feel my lump, it was too deep, but it was detected on a mammogram.”

Santamaria shares her story in B.O.O.B.S. A Bunch Of Outrageous Breast-cancer Survivors Tell Their Stories of Courage, Hope & Healing, which was written by ten members of Santamaria’s breast cancer support group.

“We are a new breed of cancer survivors. When a woman had cancer 20 years ago you did everything the doctor said and you didn’t talk about it. Now you ask questions. We empower ourselves. We are like the quarterback. We have a wonderful team of doctors but we take charge of our own health,” she says.

“My struggles with it gave me insight. I found another person inside me. If you want to do something and you are kind of afraid, go for it. You can be an inspiration to so many people and we need that.  We need people to inspire us to make a better world.”ƒnƒç


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Robin Wright Gunn

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