Meeting your Makers–the founders of St. Bernard Project

Our group of (F)friends is meeting up with the founders tonight for dinner.

One of the founders, Zack, is a lawyer who abandoned his practice for the mission-style work he and his wife, Liz (a former elementary school teacher and friend of a co-worker), saw as important here in New Orleans. They’ve been here for nearly two years working on their project, the St. Bernard Project which has helped to (re)build over 87 homes for people in this incredibly hard-hit parish. This group works with several other groups, such as Habitat for Humanity and AmeriCorps to get the work done. They also have sponsors which have helped to finance this work, such as some of the major oil companies and some other private companies. Take a look at their website.

Their strategy is to identify a key person on a block and help them to rebuild in order to encourage others to return. Over 27,000 homes were destroyed in this parish where 80% owned their own homes and there was a 4% unemployment rate, according to Zack.

One phrase they uttered over and over was, “We’re helping people who are *not* FEMA bums”–people who are interested in rebuilding their community who actually need help and will, basically, run with the ball for their community.

Zack’s question for us was “how do we get more people to come down?” Seems so simple, but very good topic for discussion. One offer we made was to contact teachers through their networks, such as listservs and other informal gatherings to promote visiting this place and contributing some of their break time to this work, not to mention students who need to complete service requirements for graduation.

Myself, being Quaker, I was curious to see if we could partner them up with the AFSC as another faith-based group big on service. Looking up what I can on the Internet, I seem to be having trouble finding out if the AFSC is already on the case…anyone with tips on this can post a comment here if you have info on this I can find out about. I’m sure it’s there somewhere.

They told us on Monday that Thursday is often the toughest day for volunteers psychologically; that we might feel disappointment at not being able to do more or leaving in the middle of the job.  I’m not sure how I’ll feel tomorrow, but I’m definitely serious about coming back to continue to work with them.  They’ve been not only hospitable, but very earnest and realistic and “together” for a non-profit which serves up over 200 volunteers a week to 25+ projects under construction all the while maintaining a semblance of order in this environment making its way back from chaos.  Impressive and inspiring to say the least.