There’s bright sun, windswept beaches and exotic cuisine. You’re almost guaranteed to shed pounds while engaged in hours of healthy aerobics. But despite that description, state Supreme Court Justice Joette Katz’s most memorable vacation spots are nothing like a resort spa.
In fact, with the encouragement of college-age son Jason Rubin, the high court’s youngest justice spent time in coastal Sri Lanka rebuilding housing for homeless victims of the Pacific tsunami of December 2004. She and Jason did similar work again last summer in Biloxi, Miss., helping rebuild after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
It all started when Jason was a junior at the University of Pennsylvania. The deadly Asian tsunami hit in December 2004. Like many people around the world, he was moved by the devastation and wanted to help. “Jason’s a do-gooder,” said Katz in a recent interview. “Without him, I never would have done this.”
It’s never easy for a Supreme Court justice to get time off the midst of its busy schedule. But in the spring of 2005, the day after Connecticut executed serial killer Michael Ross, Katz and her son left on a plane headed toward the tsunami’s swath of devastation.
As a young public defender, Katz had defended Michael Ross years before, and was disqualified from sitting on the rush of emergency appeals that had hit the Supreme Court just before his execution. “Justice [William J.] Sullivan was chief at the time, and I went with his blessing,” Katz said.
Everything But Ditches
Under the auspices of Global Crossroad, a charity based in Baton Rouge, La., Katz, her son and two dozen others from the U.S., England and Canada built three-and-a-half houses in Sri Lanka in two-and-a-half weeks.
The buildings were simple concrete block structures with minimal plumbing. But with a coat of fresh stucco and blue paint, and topped with durable terra cotta tile roofing, they were cheerful and solid.
The workers carried timbers and cinderblock bucket-brigade style, and never had the help of heavy machinery. “Everything took ten times as long,” said Katz, who mixed mortar, transported building materials, and pitched in the full range of tasks. Well, except for one: “I didn’t dig ditches,” she said.
“There’s no electricity in the houses. We had well water and river water to wash our tools at the end of the day. Food was delivered to us, but after the third day I got tired of eating with the flies. I probably lost seven or eight pounds in two or three weeks. It was my spa,” Katz said with a laugh.
The visiting workers were joined by swarms of young children, particularly when they had toys to pass out. In some photos, armed with bushels of Beanie Babies, Katz looked like a tropical version of Mrs. Santa Claus.
Ironically, the sweaty, mortar-smeared doctors and lawyers working on the buildings contrasted with neatly-groomed local schoolchildren around them, armed with bright yellow pads and sharp pencils.
Katz said it was an honor to be invited to the homes of the locals, even when the meals served to guests were unrecognizable.
“One night, I had no idea what we ate,” Katz said. “I’m pretty adventurous, but ….. Jason sort of looked at me and I looked at him and we plunged ahead. The last thing you want is to offend anybody in a situation like that.”
At the end of the stay, a ceremony was held in which the finished houses were transferred to the new owners.
“One woman with two children received a house,” Katz said. “She had pictures of her husband who was killed in the tsunami, and it was deeply touching, having the house blessed by local religious leaders at the dedication ceremony. To turn this over to people who were so appreciative,” was indeed memorable, she said. “We all do work. We all contribute to a lot of different things, but to be able to do it in a way that is really so direct is quite different.”
A Different Look
In Sri Lanka, Katz said, she and her son would go for long walks, and in every direction, there was widespread evidence of devastation.
Last year, when they traveled to Mississippi, it was dramatically different. “In Biloxi, we got off the highway and we’d be riding along the beach for miles, and there would be nothing there. At first I was thinking, ‘Oh, this doesn’t look so bad.’ But then I realized after talking to the locals it had all been decimated, but it had all been cleaned up.’”
Katz and her son, who’s now a medical student at Tufts University, helped people in Biloxi through Habitat For Humanity and an organization called Hands On Biloxi.
The Biloxi operation was centered in a church, with about 60 volunteers. The work was much more varied, including cooking, building and distributing supplies. Katz spent one day organizing and distributing second-hand furniture from a warehouse to families in need. All the furniture had been sent from Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, where some buildings were being remodeled.
Over a recent weekend this summer, “the kids were visiting, and we said, ‘What’s next?’” Katz recounted. Indeed, where will they be off to a year from now?
“We all know that between now and then there will be some natural disaster we can all respond to,” she said. “We sounded like cartoon characters – ‘If there’s death, devastation and destruction, we’ll be there.’”