By Ezra Dreiblatt
Hurricane Katrina slammed into the southern coast of the United States over three and a half years ago, leaving the city of New Orleans and a large part of the Gulf Region devastated. Today, through the help of volunteers, private money, and the federal government, New Orleans has slowly started to get itself back on its feet. However, even as the Gulf region has disappeared from the headlines and consciousness of many Americans, there is still much work to be done in the poorer parts of New Orleans and in the surrounding area. Liz McCartney, the head of St. Bernard Project, said as much when she spoke to a large group of university students in New Orleans during the spring break in March. Rutgers Hillel, along with Rutgers’ Engineers Without Borders, provided about twenty of the 2,000 students from around the country who traveled to New Orleans for their spring break to help in the rebuilding of the region. As head of St. Bernard Project, McCartney welcomed the groups by laying out how much her organization appreciated the help, all the work that needed to be done, and how important the tasks of the students were.
Ms. McCartney began her speech to the students by asking if anyone recognized her. When few people raised their hands, she jokingly conceded that she was now a minor celebrity as she had received the “Hero of the Year” award from CNN on national television in recognition of all the work she has done in New Orleans since the storm hit. Ironically, while very few of the volunteers knew of this fact, McCartney acknowledged that the exposure had been very helpful in getting volunteers of all ages, ethnicities, and religions to come down to help rebuild the city. McCartney went on to tell everyone a few facts about the St. Bernard Project. She emphasized that the organization has no religious affiliation and that it is only named after the parish in which it resides. She also stressed that the organization is currently rebuilding thirty houses with their full time staff and that any influx of volunteers means that the organization can begin making a dent in the waiting list they have of people seeking new houses or for their houses to be fixed. One important point McCartney wanted everyone to hear is the difference in her mind between a house and a home. As she eloquently put it, “Some of you (volunteers) will be working in houses and in communities that don’t seem as devastated as other areas of the city. What you must understand is that there are people living in lower income neighborhoods whose fences were destroyed, whose porches were torn off. For these people, fixing that fence or porch helps return the house they’re currently living in into a home they can live in.” For many of the volunteers from Rutgers, this statement struck a chord. Pam Slifer, a freshman with the Rutgers Hillel group, said, “I had never really thought of the distinction before; it’s crazy how a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina can totally reshape your conception of what makes a home.” McCartney’s words seemed to strike similar chords with all the students. While she spoke, many of the students could be seen nodding while others had determined expressions on their faces, as they could not wait to begin working the next day.
McCartney finished her speech by thanking everyone who was there but also stressing that there would still be a lot of work to be done once the week of community service was over. She acknowledged that this type of work might not be for everyone but urged every person in the room to tell their friends back home about their experience. “Word of mouth is our best recruiting tool,” she stated, “and me being on CNN,” she joked. McCartney made it clear that the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Region Is not possible without volunteers. She said she hoped everyone would have a productive and fun week but also that everyone would take some time to learn a little about the city as a whole. For all the students in attendance who were jetlagged and tired, McCartney’s speech was the perfect pick me up. By clearly outlining the work that needed to be done, as well as challenging everyone to do their best, she had given everyone a shot of energy for the week ahead.