Three weeks ago approximately 150 women, all volunteers, rolled up their sleeves and helped renovate gutted homes just outside New Orleans as part of the Women’s Rebuild Week of the nonprofit St. Bernard Project. Liz McCartney, the Project’s co-director, states that participants in Women’s Rebuild continue the work of the organization generally, rebuilding homes in St. Bernard Parish (a parish is what other States call a “county”) in Louisiana.

“It’s a great opportunity for women both locally and out of town to be a part of the solution, and also to interact and hear from each other,” McCartney told WVFC. “People really, really love it.” As a result of its popularity, for the first time Saint Bernard Project is adding a second Women’s Rebuild later this year, to run October 12–17, 2009.

Katrina's path through St. Bernard Parish. Image courtesy of Weather

Though it’s been over three-and-a-half years since Hurricane Katrina, the close-knit community in St. Bernard has been working tirelessly to rebuild, and the parish still desperately needs the Project’s help. Virtually all of the housing stock, serving approximately 67,000 people, was destroyed by man-made problems related to Hurricane Katrina, including  flooding from the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet and the worst oil spill in American history. McCartney and her partner/co-director Zack Rosenburg moved to the metropolitan area full-time in the summer of 2006 after a month of volunteering in St. Bernard that spring, and founded the organization with the aim of rebuilding residences in the decimated parish.

They’ve had unprecedented success combining their idealism with a fair amount of business savvy, drawing on what they’ve done: Rosenburg, a criminal defense attorney, helped found Leap D.C., a nonprofit mentoring program, while in law school; and educator McCartney ran Capital Hill Computer Center, where she recruited volunteers and raised funds. With the help of trained volunteers and a staff of local residents and individuals with experience in the nonprofit world, the Project has rebuilt over 210 gutted homes at the cost of only $15,000–$20,000 apiece. Moreover, their efficiency is increasing: They now can renovate a gutted home in eight to 12 weeks. “That’s the thing that is equally encouraging and frustrating about all of this,” McCartney told WVFC when we caught up with her a few weeks ago. “It doesn’t take a ton of money or a ton of time to get people back in their homes.”

The achievements of St. Bernard Project have not gone unnoticed, garnering coverage in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal and the naming of co-founder McCartney as  CNN’s 2008 Hero of the Year.  The organization has received numerous awards locally and can draw on thousands of volunteers — from every state and from over 60 different countries.

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We managed to get an hour’s chat with McCartney, who insists that she’s  still just one of a number of impressive women at the forefront of the rebuilding effort. “Somehow there seem to be a lot of women who get what needs to be done and who aren’t afraid to get out there and do something and to be a part of it,” she said. “Personally, I think women rock. I really think that is a part of it. It’s really amazing to see how women are able to very quickly figure out what the needs are and then to do something that addresses those needs.”

Can you talk about your first visit to St. Bernard in early 2006?

Zack and I sent out a lot of emails offering our services and got only one response, from an organization called Emergency Communities. Locally, they were known as the Hippie Tent. There was an eclectic bunch of people that started the organization and that volunteered there. So we ended up volunteering with them. I don’t know what I thought we were going to be doing. I guess I thought it would be more building activities and rebuilding activities. But six months after the storm, they weren’t even at that point yet. So it was a lot of preparing meals for people, connecting people with clothes. We would find out what they needed — diapers for their kids or access to the Internet or a phone line — and try to help them. It was very, very basic stuff.

How did the sense of community you found there inspire you to come back and help out long-term?

I was really surprised when we came down here and got going, and were preparing food and being a resource for people, at how many people that we were helping and trying to provide support to were so open. I come from D.C., where nobody says anything to each other [laughs]. People tend to be kind of closed off in their day-to-day interactions, whereas here people were really open and everybody wanted to talk about what happened. Also, even though it was such a sad time and people were going through so much trauma, I was amazed at how many people still had a sense of humor – and, on top of that, really wanted to come back to this place that they had called home for so long. I looked around and saw devastation everywhere. They looked around and saw homehi, ts place where they had grown up and where their kids and grandkids had grown up. They wanted so much to come on back.

When did you decide to move to the metropolitan area, and were you both on board with the idea right away?

LM: Pretty much. I think we decided a couple weeks after we got here that we were going to do something. I remember Zack saying he wanted to come back, and me thinking, “What are we going to do?” [laughs] We knew nothing about construction, or disasters, or New Orleans…. We talked about sending kids to camp or buying people furniture or appliances, but we didn’t know what exactly [our organization] was going to look like. So we went home for a couple of months and raised about 20 grand, and got a bunch of tools donated. We thought we might have a tool lending library. We bought a pick up truck and came back down. When we got back here three months later, things looked as bad as they had when we left. Maybe there were some more houses gutted or one pile of debris had been removed and was replaced by another pile of debris, but things looked really grim. People were in no way ready for us to buy furniture or appliances, because they didn’t have houses to put them in. People didn’t want to send their kids off to camp because they wanted their families together. So we decided that we would start helping people fix up their homes. So we started on our first client’s house in July 2006 with a handful of volunteers on the weekends. That’s really how it all began.

Have your families been supportive?

My parents have been great. They’ve both been down a bunch of times. There was awhile when they were coming every three or four months, and they would come with a group of friends and would all get involved here and help out. We also got a lot of support from Zack’s family and from friends in D.C. and across the country. That has been a huge help. Also, people who came down and volunteered have been amazing. Many of them want to keep coming back and helping out to be a part of it.

You have had over 11,000 volunteers since you started Saint Bernard Project in 2006. Where do you find them all?

People ask us all the time how we get all the volunteers to come through. We just respect them and thank them and try and make sure they have a good experience when they’re here…. We make sure that volunteers have access to homeowners and that homeowners have access to volunteers. We had the opportunity to meet the homeowners and hear their stories, and our own experiences with that were really powerful. For the homeowner, it is really powerful to have somebody they could talk to and share their stories with.

We also make sure to use people’s time wisely. That means creating a model where we only put the right number of people at a house for the job that was being done. . . . We make sure the tools are there, the supplies are there, and the volunteers and the homeowners have a chance to meet. And it really just works. The volunteers feel valued, and they realize they’re getting a lot of work done. The homeowner is happy and very, very grateful, as you can imagine. The rest of it just takes care of itself.

The volunteers actually go out and help rebuild your clients’ homes. What kind of training do you provide to them when they arrive?

Everybody who goes out to a job site has a skilled supervisor, who trains them and is available all day long to show them what to do and answer any questions. We’ve had people who’ve come out who tell me they’ve never even picked up a paintbrush before, to people who have been contractors for 20 years, and people at every level in between. It’s great because we can use everybody’s help.

How do you determine eligibility for the clients? It sounds like some people you help have some insurance or grant money but not enough to rebuild on their own, and that these individuals contribute to the cost of rebuilding.

When Katrina hit, Kenneth Wiltz was already absorbed in caring for Barbara, diagnosed with Alzheimer's the year before.

We really try to target the most vulnerable clients in the community, people who aren’t going to get home unless they get some support from us. We do get people who come through who have a little bit of money, and generally if they do we’ll ask them to pay for their own building materials. Sometimes we have people come through who have a little bit more than that. We’ll ask them to hire a plumber and electrician to do that work, and maybe have them put in the windows. Because the last thing we want to do is take business away from the local contractors. We’ll get them to exhaust their resources before we get in there and do the work.

Sometimes, too, people will make an agreement with us that they’ll pay us back over a period of time. And of course some people can’t afford anything at all, because they either never got any money [through the Road Home and/or their insurance companies] and they never will; or they got money and they got ripped off by contractors.

What is the Good Work, Good Pay program?

A nonprofit construction company that will hire and train people to do the work. Exactly like the name of the program says, the contractors will be doing good work and they’ll be getting good pay for it. But the difference between the program and a standard for-profit construction company is this: We’ll be able to pay the construction workers well and offer them benefits, but we won’t be making a profit, so the homeowner using the service won’t be getting charged a really high rate for the work. It’s one of those situations where everybody wins. The other thing it will do is help those folks who are stuck in the middle; they aren’t going to be able to get more money from the bank or qualify for additional grants or loans. But they’re also not going to be able to hire a contractor right now.

How does thr Fair Rate plan to target middle income families work?

LM: Under the Fair Rate plan, people who have enough money to go out and hire a contractor can come to us, and we will connect them with good contractors. This way, the homeowner knows they’re going to get the work done. They know what rate they’re going to be charged, because it’s going to be a standard per-footage rate, and the contractors know they are going to get clients. Again, it’s one of those scenarios where everybody wins. The work gets done, people who need to get paid get paid, and ultimately more families move back into their homes.

And now you’ve started a mental health center. What prompted that?

People would get back into their homes, and that was very healing and therapeutic. But they needed more than just having their home rebuilt. They really needed professional services to go through the healing process and resolve issues related to post traumatic stress disorder, trauma and loss. So we partnered with LSU [Louisiana State University], which is providing all the clinicians. People are not just getting therapy but access to wellness classes. You never want to have to do this in the first place, but it is going well.

I know you have plans to build affordable rental units for seniors and disabled citizens. What other plans do you have to expand the Project?

We are going to move into New Orleans this May, and start to rebuild homes in Gentilly with our volunteer program. We’re also going to be adding new layers of service to meet the needs of people of different income levels, who have access to different services. Hopefully that will enable us to help a lot more people. We are going to continue to do what we’re doing but also significantly expand our reach.

City and state funding will help finance your growth. And you’re working with KPMG Marketing, a national consulting firm, to keep it smart.

Government funding will help support these programs. KPMG is helping us scale up our operations and expand things, work on our supply chain and all of our internal processes, so that as we grow, we do it as smartly as we can. All of this will put the pieces of the puzzle together on a much larger scale.

How do you stay grounded in the face of all the media attention?

[Katrina] is one of those things you wish had never happened. It’s weird to be recognized for work that you’re doing for something that you wish had never happened at all. Then, the other thing is that there are so many people down here who just do amazing stuff all the time. They’re just going about their lives and quietly helping their own family and their own friends in their own community, in very significant ways. I think the combination of those things keep us grounded.

What else should people know about St. Bernard Project?

We still need help. We still need volunteers. We still need donations. We’ve made a lot of progress, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. Getting the word out is the key to our success in raising funds and getting the volunteers necessary to get things done. For information about how you can, visit our website at!


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  • INES Q COMPTON June 8, 2009 at 1:26 pm