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Volunteerism as a Passion and a Way to Make a Difference

Like everyone, when I turned on the TV in late August 2005 I was horrified watching the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the damage that it caused in New Orleans (NOLA).  More shocking than the physical damage was watching with a sense of helplessness as people affected by this tragedy wandered aimlessly in search of help and direction that was slow to materialize. From afar, I wondered how this could happen in a country as great as ours – how could we leave our distant neighbors stranded as they pleaded for help?  Where was our rapid response to make everything right?  How could this be?  As hours dragged into days, a sense of promises not kept and people mistreated hardened in my heart.

I’d like to say at this point I jumped in my car and drove there to make an immediate impact – but I didn’t.  Instead like most people, as the cameras faded and moved on to the next big story I joined them - melting back into my daily life and responsibilities with those stark images slowly fading into the distance.

Three years later (late 2008) I read a small news article in the Wall Street Journal about a non-profit founded in NOLA ‘doing it right’. The article described a small non-profit who were busy rebuilding houses destroyed by Katrina – then known as The St. Bernard Project. Reading this article rekindled those long lost hard images and I decided I needed to act.

I contacted the organization and coordinated a week long volunteer trip in May 2009.  Having already put my family through a number of previous ‘adventures’ I decided it was best to go solo just in case things went south. As May came and I flew into NOLA I had a shared sense of excitement and dread about visiting this new place, unsure of what lay ahead.

Monday morning I drove over to SBP’s headquarters about fifteen minutes from the French Quarter.  The most striking thing I noticed right away was how much damage was still evident after you left the comfortable confines of the downtown area. Crossing into the 9th Ward there was a stark difference in the amount of damage that was still apparent throughout the area.  It looked less like 3 and ½ years had passed since the disaster and more like 3 and ½ days, many homes were still riddled with remnants of Katrina.

Arriving at SBP, I walked into the headquarters and was immediately greeted by a smiling volunteer coordinator who bubbled with gratefulness as she thanked me for my willingness to help. As I joined the volunteer orientation and listened to the background of the organization my fears and concerns faded. I learned that the organization was founded by two individuals (boyfriend and girlfriend) who lived in the Washington, DC area and saw the same broadcasts that I did back way back in 2005. Different from most, they decided to do something about it – and six months after the disaster drove down to NOLA to help out.  Once they arrived they realized that the road to recovery was a long one and then and there they decided to stay and create a rebuilding organization.

Whoa!  Those are people I had to meet – and sure enough at the end of the orientation I met one of the founders, Liz McCartney. Right away I found her to be hardworking, energetic and genuinely concerned about all the families that they were helping. Both Liz and the other founder, Zack Rosenberg quickly realized that their strength was organizing and bringing volunteers to NOLA to help families rebuild and by 2009 were a small but well-oiled machine. Any doubts were now erased – this was an organization I wanted to help.

As the week progressed, I learned that SBP could easily train unskilled volunteers (read me) and teach them how they could become productive and assist in the efforts to bring families home.   Most telling was the sense of purpose and enthusiasm by the SBP staff - easily contagious and picked up by the volunteers. By the end of the week, I felt vindicated and thankful that I could help out my distance neighbors in some small way in their path back to normalcy.

Fast forward to 2017. Since that initial trip, I’ve volunteered with SBP at various sites across the country twenty or so times, and coaxed my family and friends into a ‘working vacation’ in NOLA - a unique city I've fallen in love with. As I have grown to know Liz and Zack on a personal level I’m still humbled by what they’ve sacrificed and accomplished in the name of bringing families home. 

Their dedication, the commitment of the SBP staff and the ability to help families recover is a truly winning combination and why I continue to support this great organization.

Feeney
Presenting a Check to SBP client, Ms. Ethel, following the JOMO/NOLA Charity Bike ride from Joplin to New Orleans, benefitting SBP