Artists and Volunteers In The Lake Area Team Up To Give Back
By Kerri Cooke
The Capital One tower in Downtown Lake Charles holds the title as SWLA’s skyscraper. Sure, you have the casino towers, but they don’t have quite as much history behind them or loom over the oldest part of the city of Lake Charles. Not only is the Capital One tower a symbol of industry, it’s also an effective marker in determining the severity of any storm that roars in from the Gulf of Mexico as its 22 floors are (were) solid glass all the way around.
When Hurricane Laura made landfall on August 27, the Capital One tower suffered unprecedented damage. I know I speak for all of us when I say that when footage of the building during and after the tropical system began circulating on social media, we were horror struck. Hurricane Rita, the storm to end all storms, or so we thought, didn’t produce anywhere near the same amount of damage. Back in 2005, what seemed like a lot of damage to the Capital One building was in truth a handful of broken windows. After Hurricane Laura, the beloved landmark looked as if it had suffered from a blast wave.
A few days after Hurricane Laura, Rachel Sollay decided to take a walk down by the boardwalk near Capital One that she had frequented before the storm. (Sollay had been living near downtown Lake Charles, but her house was destroyed in the Category 4 winds.) Sollay says that there was glass strewn from the Capital One tower to the Lakefront and she came upon a fragment that she describes as “small and dainty.” She picked up the weatherbeaten glass and thought it was the perfect size and shape to create a necklace with.
When she posted the idea to her Facebook profile, she was flooded with requests from friends who wanted her to make them a necklace as well. Sollay says she had intended to have the necklace made for her. She didn’t know anything about working with glass or jewelry making. But she did some research and learned how to wire wrap items for necklaces.
As more and more requests came her way, Sollay realized she couldn’t make a piece for everyone. She also felt she couldn’t charge people who had just been through not only a devastating hurricane, but a pandemic as well.
A pathway forward opened when a friend commented on Sollay’s Facebook post that a possible option would be selling the necklaces and donating the profits to organizations which provide hurricane relief. Sollay connected with the idea immediately and knew it was something she “had to do.”
The Facebook post announcing Sollay would embark on the glass necklace venture saw many people asking for a piece of jewelry to call their own. One comment that touched Sollay’s heart was from Sarah O’Neil asking how she could help. The two women then partnered together to create Picking Up the Pieces.
When I ask O’Neil what inspired her to get involved she says, “When I first saw Rachel’s post on Facebook, I was intrigued by the unique idea. It was incredible to see such a positive response from everyone so soon after a devastating event like Hurricane Laura… I instantly wanted to help figure out a way to incorporate the glass into jewelry for everyone to enjoy.”
O’Neil created the Facebook group Picking Up the Pieces to allow community access to updates. Neither O’Neil nor Sollay were prepared for the response they received. The pair expected a couple hundred members at most. But the page quickly grew by the hundreds every day. They quickly realized they would need much more glass. (As of press time, the group had 11.1k members.)
O’Neil and Sollay made 15 trips to pick up glass. They filled ice chests and bags, all the while battling the heat and mosquitos. Some curious citizens stopped to inquire what they were doing. Word began to get out, which led to “a few TV interviews.”
Since local craft stores were still down from Hurricane Laura and mail was not being delivered, the women traveled to other cities to search for the supplies they needed.
Picking Up the Pieces’ inventory expanded as Sollay and O’Neil pondered what to do with bigger pieces of glass they didn’t want to have to break. Magnets and rearview mirror ornaments, the bestseller, were released after receiving feedback from the community.
Sollay thinks the rearview mirror ornaments are so popular because of the symbolism of the piece. When you “look behind you, you see a piece of the devastation of Lake Charles and the surrounding areas.” I would go a step further and say that as sunlight travels through the faceted glass and creates a rainbow, rearview ornaments can be a sign of good things to come and promises to be kept.
Soon local artists began to contact Sollay and O’Neil about collaborating. Everyone would meet at Sollay’s Mawmaw Sybil’s house to eat, drink coffee and create all day long. Jade Higgenbotham, a glass artist, began to create keychains; Dorian Deaville with Cajun Charm fashioned earrings; and Jackie Bourassa wire-wrapped unique pendants. Another artist, Kaitlyn Trahan, painted the Lake Charles skyline and made the Capital One tower out of glass.
All of the volunteers who have helped Sollay and O’Neil get the project off the ground are vital to the success of Picking Up the Pieces. O’Neil comments, “I truly don’t think we would have been this successful without their creativity. They were willing to teach Rachel and I the basics at the beginning and also volunteer to share their techniques with us and other local artists.”
Not only do the artists with Picking Up the Pieces create necklaces and keychains, they also create one-of-a-kind items to auction off. The pieces are as good as any fine art pieces you would see elsewhere.
As online orders flooded in, Sollay and O’Neil realized they couldn’t continue to offer online orders because it involved invoicing people and shipping pieces out at a time when the mail system was wrecked. Maggie Bradshaw offered to let Picking Up the Pieces have a canopy sale in front of her store.
When Sollay and O’Neil arrived downtown at 7 am on the day of the sale, people were already lined up and waiting for the event, which was not even scheduled to start until 9 am. Picking Up the Pieces made $30,704 for hurricane relief in one day.
On October 25, a second sale took place. L’Auberge hosted Picking Up the Pieces in front of the new SWLA Strong mural by Jeremy Price. They introduced new items such as mosaic crosses and Christmas ornaments.
When one is donating to hurricane relief, one challenge is to make sure the money goes directly towards helping the local community. Sollay says that Picking Up the Pieces has partnered with Sarah Judson of the SWLA Community Foundation, who distributes the dollars to “people, businesses and non-profits in good standing,” such as Catholic charities and Samaritan’s Purse. However, Sollay says she and O’Neil are considering filing for Picking Up the Pieces to become a non-profit if they are able to do so in a timely manner despite Covid-19 induced delays.
While Sollay says that creating Picking Up the Pieces was a “happy accident” a la Bob Ross, she also adds that everything coming together like it did is definitely a “God thing.”
Sollay says she is “so thankful to the community for supporting the project.” The “happiness and joy you see when everyone gets their piece” makes it all worth it.
O’Neil says, in addition to helping the community in a time of need, she has found another bright side of the project. “I can’t help but mention the amazing stories that have come out of this project. My favorite thing so far has to be listening to the history behind the building and those who contributed to its legacy. It’s emotional to hear everyone’s story but absolutely amazing to see how much more our pieces mean to them.”
Sollay thinks one of the supporters of Picking Up the Pieces said it best. The glass creations are a “reminder of where we come from, no matter where we end up.”