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New Hampshirite in for the long haul
He becomes director of community center
Sunday, September 03, 2006
By John PopeStaff writer
When Raphael M. "Iray" Nabatoff heard about the desperate conditions in St. Bernard Parish, he left his native New Hampshire in January and headed south, determined to volunteer for 18 days.
At the end of his stint at a free kitchen in Arabi, Nabatoff flew home, but it was only to tie up loose ends. He returned to St. Bernard on Valentine's Day, committed to stay for five years and determined to do whatever he could to help the storm-racked parish get back on its feet.
"Meeting the people in St. Bernard was like connecting with family I hadn't met before," said Nabatoff, 53. "I realized that everything, with the exception of the good will, was short term, other than the need. All the disaster-relief agencies have cut back and pulled out in preparation for another disaster, and the need is still here."
A month later, he started meeting with residents about setting up a community center in Old Hickory Hall, which had been part of the Andrew Jackson Masonic Lodge No. 428 on Lebeau Street in Arabi. He is the executive director, and he drives around the parish in a Nissan pickup truck with a bumper sticker saying, "St. Bernard Parish: We're Coming Back!"
"I gave a five-year commitment to this project," he said. "I literally walked out of my life in New England to make this happen. I consider it a life-defining moment, and I knew in my heart that this was a very worthwhile project that needed to happen, and I just felt that if not me, who's going to do it?"
Nabatoff said his decision to stay crystallized when he saw people socializing at a St. Joseph's altar.
"I saw residents connecting with friends and relatives they hadn't seen since before the storm," he said. "The power of community and the power of this community, as displaced as it may be to some degree, really touched me. The vision of the community center really jelled that weekend."
Wearing a beret and sandals, Nabatoff spoke as he walked around the dark, stiflingly hot Masonic hall, which still has no electricity. Masonic paraphernalia, pews and a dusty American flag have been pushed to the middle of the vast main room.
One of the community center board members is Alberta Lewis, whose father founded the lodge.
"We're very grateful for his vision and for the effort that he has put forth," she said. "We're very proud of him."
Partitions have been set up in the hall for what will be a computer room, and Nabatoff plans to set up a kitchen that will offer hot dinners on weeknights.
"My dad was a butcher," Nabatoff said. "He had a meatpacking plant and a restaurant, so I've been around food service pretty much my whole life."
Because he receives Social Security for a work-related back injury 20 years ago, Nabatoff, who is single, has been able to be a full-time volunteer. Before coming south, he had worked at a community kitchen in Keene, N.H., serving as many as 130 people a night.
"To me, breaking bread has always been a spiritual act and a way of sharing," he said. "I've gone to gatherings of people and cooked a pot of food just to share, just for the joy of breaking bread."
Nabatoff has stayed, even though that meant spending 5 1/2 months living in a communal tent. He has graduated to a camper in Chalmette.
"I'm in the middle of the Murphy Oil spill," he said, smiling. "I hope to live in Old Arabi at some point, but my plate is so full making the community center. I'll deal with my personal comfort at some point, but we need to get our door open."
The Community Center of St. Bernard has been established as a nonprofit corporation, and it has a Web site, groups.msn.com/ccstbp.
Although he expects the center to be in full swing in five years, Nabatoff said he might stay after that.
"Some people have a house in Mississippi they go to, to get out of town," he said. "Mine'll be in New England."
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John Pope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3317.
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