Wednesday, October 7, 2009

There are two reactions when one sees something that is not quite right in the world: make a mental note and keep on moving or stop and try to fix it. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit four years ago, Liz McCartney and her boyfriend, Zack Rosenberg, drove from the District to New Orleans to see how they could help.

At the time, she was running an area after-school program and he was a criminal defense attorney. They ended up in St. Bernard, a parish just outside of New Orleans. As Mr. Rosenberg says, “We were grossly unprepared for what we saw.”

“We just wanted to pitch in and help out,” Ms. McCartney recalls. “I naively thought that six months later, you’d see all kinds of progress. [But it] looked like the storm had just rolled through.”

When they returned to the District, Ms. McCartney and Mr. Rosenberg decided they couldn’t walk away from what they had seen. Though neither knew anything about construction, they both felt they could use their experience raising money and organizing volunteers to help with the rebuilding effort. By August 2006, the couple had launched the St. Bernard Project ( dedicated to rebuilding homes for seniors, families and disabled members of the community.

They had their work cut out for them. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita rendered all of St. Bernard Parish’s homes uninhabitable. Four years after the storm, just 50 percent of the population is estimated to have returned, and many of them are living in trailers or overcrowded family houses. It is estimated that 75 percent of the community’s homeowners did not have flood insurance because they were told their communities were not at risk. According to a report published by the Brookings Institution in August 2008, just 70 percent of all qualified applicants for federal Road Home assistance (federal money dedicated to getting residents back in their homes) have received funding through the program. Furthermore, an independent study determined that the majority of Road Home recipients did not receive sufficient funds to rebuild - all of this resulting in a difficult, slow recovery for residents in St. Bernard Parish.

Every week, the St. Bernard Project has more than 100 homes on its waiting list, and 20 to 25 people arrive every week to get assistance. To address this demand, the nonprofit harnesses the power of volunteerism matched with outside funding support to rebuild homes as fast as it can. Each volunteer team is overseen by a project supervisor who ensures that the quality of the work is high and the volunteer experience is exceptional.

“If people who are giving up their vacations to come volunteer with us don’t feel like they are making a real difference, they won’t come back and, importantly, they won’t share the positive experiences with others,” Director of Operations Andrea Bontrager explains. “We want this to be a transformative experience for our volunteers and for others to hear about it and want to come help.”

To date, more than 17,000 volunteers have given their time to help rebuild St. Bernard Parish and the surrounding communities. Every week, 100 to 250 people show up to volunteer. Next week, for example, 200 women from across the nation will help rebuild 20 homes as part of the fourth annual Women’s Rebuild Week. As a result of this volunteer energy and more than $300,000 in outside funding, St. Bernard Project has rebuilt 240 homes and is on track to rebuild 100 homes this year alone. Each house takes about eight to 12 weeks to build at an estimated cost of $10,000 to $12,000.

To further support this effort and to mitigate the inevitable peaks and valleys of volunteer availability, the organization is launching the Good Work Good Pay program to train returning veterans as well as underemployed locals in the construction trade - providing them with needed work in which they can take pride as well as future leadership opportunities as site supervisors and managers. St. Bernard Project also has partnered with Louisiana State University to open the Center for Wellness and Mental Health, helping residents “psychologically rebuild” while their homes are under construction.

Often people ask Ms. McCartney and Mr. Rosenberg how they could give up what they did when they decided to head south. Mr. Rosenberg says, “We didn’t give up a thing. This is the right thing to do.”

Christopher Gergen is the director of the Entrepreneurial Leadership Initiative within the Hart Leadership Program at Duke University’s Terry Sanford School of Public Policy and co-author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Send e-mail to authors@

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