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AmeriCorps: Lifeblood of the St. Bernard Project

by Terry Araman

Zack Rosenburg was living a comfortable life as an attorney in Washington, DC when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005.

And while Americans came from all over to New Orleans to help, Zack took the extra step of leaving his job, moving to New Orleans and devoting himself fully to the recovery.

When he arrived, what he found was a war zone. “There were no grocery stores. No restaurants. No place to eat or buy a toothbrush,” said Rosenberg. “Here I was among people who had done everything right – worked hard, saved for a house and yet they were living in untenable circumstances. I realized we had to take this seriously. We had to do something.”

What Rosenburg did, along with his wife Liz, was found the St. Bernard Project, a community-based, volunteer driven non-profit organization that is literally rebuilding homes and lives for hundreds of New Orleans families still struggling to recover six years after Katrina.

To date, the St. Bernard project has rebuilt homes for more than 380 families, and provided wellness and mental health counseling to hundreds of residents dealing with the psychological aftershocks of both Katrina and the 2010 Gulf oil spill.

And Rosenburg would be the first to tell you, he couldn't have done it without AmeriCorps.

“AmeriCorps is the lifeblood of the St. Bernard Project. We are blessed to have 200 volunteers a day coming from around the country to help,” he said.

More than 32,000 volunteers have pitched-in to help over the last six years. During that same period, more than 800 AmeriCorps members have provided skilled supervision to unskilled volunteers, run the tools, and managed the logistics.

“AmeriCorps is 100% essential to our work,” says Rosenburg. “Every single volunteer who has worked for us has been supported by an AmeriCorps member.”

One of the reasons the St. Bernard Project and AmeriCorps work so well together is because they share the same values: America is one, united community, and problems, no matter how big or daunting, are solvable.

A Dying Wish Fulfilled

Janice and Sherman Williams fled to Monroe, LA during Katrina and lived for six months on a church floor with 200 other displaced citizens. They were then transplanted to Mississippi for the next eight months living in a crowded hotel room. They desperately wanted to return to their home in St. Bernard Parish.

Mr. Williams passed away from cancer in the early hours of March 30, 2011. Two days earlier, St. Bernard Project workers completed the Williams' bedroom and bathroom and Sherman was able to fulfill his dying wish by moving home for the last two nights of his life. The emotional relief experienced by St. Bernard Parish residents who are able to return to volunteer-rebuilt homes cannot be over stated.

The success of the AmeriCorps/St. Bernard Project partnership is spawning new collaborations. Recently the organization launched a Veteran's Corps” program that is engaging experienced veterans, working alongside AmeriCorps members and volunteers, in recovery construction work. Veterans Corps is also connecting local veterans to one another for support in easing the transition back to civilian life.

St. Bernard Project is now taking its community-based disaster recovery model to Joplin, MO, where AmeriCorps members are already on the ground ready to assist.

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