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The St. Bernard Project

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In February 2006, Washington, D.C., lawyer Zack Rosenburg and his partner Liz McCartney came to St. Bernard Parish to feed people. Five years later, they’re still here.

The St. Bernard Project, the group they founded, initially focused on rebuilding homes in St. Bernard and Orleans parishes using the labor of more than 35,000 volunteers. Over the years, the St. Bernard Project’s mission has expanded. The Center for Wellness and Mental Health, a partnership with the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, treats people suffering from post-storm and post-BP-oil-disaster mental health problems. Their Opportunity Housing program offers affordable homes at below market rates. And their in-house construction company, Good Work Good Pay, puts to work veterans and the local unemployed.

What drew you and Liz to volunteer for a month in 2006?

We wanted to do something useful that wasn’t about us, that wasn’t just a vacation. We felt like we should invest in other folks. We sent emails to about 20 or 30 different groups, and the only one that responded was a United Way funded group that was feeding people in St. Bernard Parish.

What did you find when you arrived?

It was the Wild West back then. It was pure disaster. People were struggling. It was amazing to me that six months after the storm, American families who had kind of made it, people who had done everything right and achieved success, were sleeping in attics, garages and cars. It seemed wholly inconsistent with our understanding of the way America should be and could be and really has to be.

Why did you decide to stay?

When it was time to go, there were two precipitating factors that caused us to stay. One, when we asked people what we could do to help, they said, “Don’t forget us.” That was chilling. That language you expect to hear in a war movie. It’s by no means what you expect to hear in your own country six months after an event. And the second thing we thought about was if this was our family, what would we want someone else to do?

Why did you want to create your own nonprofit?

We were convinced from the beginning that we had to create an efficient system and that nonprofit groups have to be efficient, effective and fully client centered. That means running them like a business.

How have you been able to do that?

So many people could have said no at so many steps along the way, and we would have failed. But it was AmeriCorps granting us a team. It was the United Way funding building supplies for the first 20 houses and then coming on to become our best partner. It’s Entergy funding every single expansion that we’ve had and exponentially increasing our capacity. It’s volunteers who leave their comfort zones all around the country to invest in solving solvable problems.

What role do your corporate partners play?

We’re never going to be able to afford high-level people at every level, but at the same time we need to be efficient like the best business out there. And the way to do it is to bring in corporate partners. So Toyota is helping with construction efficiency. UPS is helping with procurement tracking and product delivery. KPMG is helping us replicate. Zurich Financial is helping us with our internal and external communication.

How many people in the area still need to rebuild?

Our waiting list is over 120 people and folks are still coming to us every day. We think there are about 8,000 families who own homes they can’t afford to rebuild. A couple of main categories of clients now are people who have been too proud to ask for help before, people who have been plagued by contractor fraud, and seniors and people with disabilities who have just been languishing.

Do you see an end to the needs for your services in the area?

At some point we’re going to get to the end of clients who need their homes rebuilt. Hopefully in 12 to 18 months it starts decreasing. At the same time, I think we’ll be increasing our creation of what we call Opportunity Housing, which is really affordable housing. We most likely will also be opening offices, or at least bringing our model, to (tornado ravaged) Joplin and Tuscaloosa, because there is a way to rebuild the right way.

Is there a point when we’ll be able to say that New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish have truly recovered?

It’s so tricky. In some ways, I think these communities are stronger than ever before, because they’ve been tested and they’ve seen that the strength of their people is undefeatable. At the same time, I think the city will never be whole until we take care of everybody. That’s what separates Louisiana from other parts of the country: a commitment to our neighbors.

For information about the St. Bernard Project, visit  www.stbernardproject.org.

-Todd A. Price