Our Neighbors....Elissa Leno

When Cloquet's Elissa Leno returned from visiting New Orleans after Thanksgiving, she couldn't believe what she just had seen. "You just don't realize the damage Hurricane Katrina had done until you actually see it for yourself," said Leno. "The ...

When Cloquet's Elissa Leno returned from visiting New Orleans after Thanksgiving, she couldn't believe what she just had seen.

"You just don't realize the damage Hurricane Katrina had done until you actually see it for yourself," said Leno. "The hurricane-destroyed areas in and around New Orleans look like a third-world country - even after more than a year later. There wasn't an area that was spared."

She knew the people of New Orleans still needed help but wasn't sure how to help. After getting back from her trip to New Orleans, she was a woman literally on a mission. She visited Web site after Web site and made several phone calls and connections and eventually discovered a way she could help people directly - and not by just cutting a check to a major charitable organization.

"As soon as I got back, I was consumed with finding ways to help the people down there," said Leno. "I mean, the wheels were spinning! I was actually sickened by what I saw down there and wanted to help at any cost.

"I figure, if you simply write a check to something like the Red Cross, that's wonderful. I wanted to do something where we could directly help someone, but unfortunately, I was in no position to volunteer. So I looked and looked and looked, and I stumbled upon the Web site . It's run by a guy named Mark McLaughlin from Los Angeles, and it's a 100 percent non-profit organization. Those in need who were affected by Katrina put in their profile, and people who want to help put in their profile, and it matches you up based upon need. It's really simple. I have such a big circle of friends and family, so I thought, let's dig in and get a bunch of stuff done for those folks down south."


Currently, Leno, husband Brent Teasck and her family are working on a campaign to help out an entire hurricane-ravaged neighborhood in New Orleans. Leno was matched up with nearly 42 people in need from New Orleans from , and chose only one - for now. She chose a woman who had her house wrecked, her job lost and her life in shambles. And this woman, according to Leno, has spent most of her post-Katrina time helping others.

"The reason I picked her was that she wasn't interested in helping herself, just other people," said Leno. "She is helping her entire neighborhood, which had something like 15 kids and several elderly people. Even though she was in dire straits herself, she was looking to help everybody else. The area she lived in was one I toured fairly extensively during my New Orleans visit that was hit very hard.

"So I emailed her, and she emailed me right back and we got the ball rolling. She was really, really sweet. I immediately told her, 'If you're looking for millionaires who have money immediately, I won't be one bit offended if you'd rather work with them.' I told her we're not people of money, but were very big-hearted and have a huge circle of friends. She said she didn't care who it was helping her, and that was nice to hear."

So Leno told the woman to send her a list of everything she needed - even things from the neighbor kids and everyone else in the neighborhood.

"When she sent me the initial list, it was really small. I sent it back and told her to send us EVERYTHING they needed," said Leno. "Then we temporarily shifted our priorities. I asked her to get every kid on the block's personal info so we could get them some Christmas gifts right away. my mom told people at her job and we all picked a kid or two or three from the neighborhood to get gifts for. In less than a week, every kid had a 'sponsor.' She sent back this huge list from 16 kids, and everyone I knew picked a kid to sponsor for Christmas. We wrapped all the gifts and all we need to do is cover shipping. I don't care if I miss a house payment, those kids are getting those gifts."

Leno and Teasck are sponsoring two girls. She said they're both shocked, even after what they've all been through, by how upbeat they all are.

"They all are so humble. They ask for the bare minimum, and I'm sure they're absolutely thrilled by anything we can give them for Christmas," said Leno. "The woman I've been in contact with has been great. She wasn't embarrassed or ashamed of her situation. I told her if it happened to us, we'd be in just as much trouble as they are. We don't have stocks and investments and all kinds of money sitting in the bank. I just saw a lot of us in them."

Cross Country Tour


Leno and Teasck lived in Orlando, Fla., from December 2004 until December 2005. Florida wasn't far removed from Hurricane Katrina, although they weren't directly hit.

"We weren't that far away from total destruction, yet we really had no idea how bad it was in the Katrina-ravaged areas," said Leno. "So, like we had planned, we moved back to Cloquet in December of 2005. Not long after, Brent took a job in New Orleans."

Teasck does construction work, mainly drywall. According to Leno, they both did some serious thinking before Teasck took a job in an area of the country that was economically vulnerable and had been taken advantage of with price gouging.

"A gal I tended bar with in Orlando now lives in New Orleans, and her husband is a general contractor in New Orleans," said Leno. "So she called me up and said her husband is looking for someone to be a finisher at his construction jobs, and Brent does drywall, so it sounded like a good situation. It certainly sounded like a good money making opportunity. But we really did some soul searching before he went. It was really important he didn't go there and be any part of taking advantage of people who had been through hell - even if he didn't intend to. We didn't want to be opportunists. We've heard of people charging 10 times what they're supposed to because people are desperate and taking advantage of insurance checks, things like that. So it turned out everything was on the up and up, and Brent took the job.

"When he took the job in July, he would call me and we would email back and forth and he would tell me how he would see things like a boat in a tree - even after more than a year after Katrina hit. Or how he would see a car still sitting in the same place, destroyed, on a street corner from when the hurricane hit. I never realized it was that bad until I saw it for myself," said Leno.

Teasck had been home to visit his wife and family twice since he's been working in New Orleans. Leno planned on taking her first-ever visit to New Orleans during Thanksgiving. She had anticipated lying in the sun, having a cocktail or two and spending time with a husband she'd missed dearly.

"When I went down to visit him for Thanksgiving, it was a last minute-type deal. My whole intention was to be in the sun, be with him and have a good time," said Leno. "I knew full well New Orleans and other areas had been literally flattened. I knew those towns were in terrible shape. But I didn't know it was to this extent. I also assumed work was being done around the clock to rebuild those places. That's not happening."

Leno claims she'd never put much stake in getting information from network news and major newspapers regarding what's happening to rebuild after Katrina - but she hadn't heard anything saying nothing was being done.


I had no idea how I was going to be affected when I went down there," said Leno. "I felt like I cried the entire time. You know, it's become a blurb on the news, and it's so much more than that! No matter how many times he called me and told me about it, I'd still be like, 'Yeah, that's terrible. But I'm sure they'll be OK.' There aren't even words to describe what kind of condition that area is in."

When Leno arrived in New Orleans, she said she didn't plan on taking the 'Presidential Tour,' but she immediately wanted to see exactly what her husband was talking about.

"There are still entire communities that are like ghost towns," said Leno. "And I'm not talking about wrecked ghettos. Million-dollar communities are still in shambles, and probably will be for a while. There are still curtains blowing out of shattered windows."

Just to put things in perspective, Leno provided a localized scenario.

"It would be as though both Cloquet and part of Duluth were completely destroyed," she described. "Not just damaged, but wrecked. Imagine Cloquet being wiped off the map. Imagine the Miller Hill Mall and everything surrounding it destroyed.

And this, according to Leno, is exactly why she feels everybody needs to pitch in and help the people affected by Hurricane Katrina.

"Think about it - if our house burned to the ground tomorrow, it would be devastating. But I have a bunch of people who would come to our rescue," she said. "Now, imagine if all the people who would normally help you also had their house burn to the ground, too. The people in New Orleans are swimming upstream without a paddle. It's awful. I simply wasn't prepared for what I'd seen. There are still front yards filled with garbage. Lawns are all grown in, rats are running around, there are dead animals in the yards. They need help."

Just Keep Helping


When Leno started her campaign to help the block in New Orleans, she sent an initial email to a group of friends and family. And as the old adage goes, "Her friend told a friend, and that friend told a friend," and so on. Leno said she's thrilled people are so interested in helping people who need it.

"There are days when I come home from work and there are donations on my porch from people I don't even know," she said. "That's so nice to see."

Leno said the woman she's helping and working with to help others is a small example of the hope people carry in their hearts, even when it seems hope is lost.

"The key with this woman is, she appreciates and accepts help, but she doesn't want to put anybody out," said Leno. "She actually told me, 'I know your husband has a business, and we'd be willing to work off whatever you send us!' Can you believe that? I thought, 'Are you kidding? Never! You've been through enough! We're not going to ask you to work off some used curtains!' Ha! She's just that sweet a lady, and it makes it pretty easy to help people like that. People still hold hope down there - as they should - and it's so wonderful to see. They still have their flower boxes all done up despite their ruined homes. They have Christmas decorations on their little FEMA trailer and cute lawn ornaments. Their resolve is what's sustaining them."

Overall, this experience has helped Leno appreciate everything she has. She and Teasck have a cozy little home in Cloquet, steady jobs and good health, things Leno says she appreciates even more since her trip to New Orleans.

"We have good jobs, roofs over our heads and food in our fridge all the time. We're doing great," she said. "But other people aren't. That's why we need to help them."

Pine Journal Editor Mat Gilderman can be contacted at: .

What To Read Next
Get Local