[StBernard] Strength shines in St. Bernard's rebuilding

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Tue Sep 10 09:25:30 EDT 2013

Strength shines in St. Bernard's rebuilding
By SHEILA STROUP, The Times-Picayune
Published 12:23 pm, Sunday, September 8, 2013

CHALMETTE, La. (AP) - Every year around the anniversary of Hurricane
Katrina, the memories come rushing back.

So I got out a special yearbook, and as I leafed through it, I was amazed at
the determination of the people who went home to St. Bernard Parish after
the storm.

The book is called "Reflections: St. Bernard Unified School, 2005-2006." It
tells the story of a parish that refused to give up after virtually every
home, every church, every school - every building - was inundated after the

It tells the story of School Superintendent Doris Voitier, who didn't wait
for FEMA. Less than three months after the flooding, she opened a school
cobbled together in tents and trailers on the campus of Chalmette High
School. The electricity came from generators. The unified school became a
refuge for preschoolers through 12th-graders in St. Bernard Parish, and
Wayne Warner, longtime leader at Chalmette High, was the principal.

I once asked Warner when he knew his parish would survive, and he said it
was the November day they started registering students for school. "It was
the first time we saw people smile," he said. "And the kids were so excited.
They realized things were going to be kind of normal. It wasn't going to be
the same, but it was going to be all right."

School officials were hoping 50 kids would show up that day. They registered
334, and by the end of the school year the school had nearly 2,500 students.

The huge yearbook that chronicles that year is more than 300 pages long. It
was a collaboration of the unified school's English V class, staff members
of the CityBridge Foundation and Atlantic Media Co., which publishes The
Atlantic magazine.

As soon as the school was open and the word began to spread, people around
the country wanted to help. In a letter Warner wrote to students, he reminds
them of the obligation that was placed on them: "All of us have benefited
from the kindness of strangers and friends who have come to help in every
way imaginable. ... I hope that you will learn this great lesson, the
importance of giving to those in need."

The inside cover of the book is a collage of drawings done by some of the
younger students, with words accompanying them. They bring back the
devastation in vivid images.

But one drawing shows a sign with the message, "One world, one heart."
That's a beautiful way to describe the help that poured into St. Bernard
Parish after the storm.

Do they remember the hippie tent? Its official name was Emergency
Communities, and it was a free kitchen that opened in white tents in Arabi.
Volunteers served hundreds of hot meals every day.

Zack Rosenburg and Liz McCartney traveled from Washington in 2006 to
volunteer at those big domed tents and were so taken with the people of St.
Bernard Parish they decided to move here and help with the rebuilding.

They founded the St. Bernard Project.

Last year, when I asked Rosenburg why they decided to start their own
nonprofit organization instead of joining an existing one already working in
New Orleans. He said that when they were here volunteering after the storm,
they asked all the bigger groups when they were going to start rebuilding,
and everyone told them rebuilding was "Phase 2," and south Louisiana was
still in "Phase 1." He and McCartney couldn't accept that.

"We thought, 'People need to see progress now,'" Rosenburg said. The people
they met reminded them of their own families, and they were desperate to
come home.

"It was inconceivable to see them living in cars, attics, garages -- the
lucky ones crammed into FEMA trailers -- six months after the storm," he
said. "We just didn't think that should happen in America."

So they decided to do basically what Voitier and Warner had done at the St.
Bernard Unified School: They said, "Let's not wait." They raised $30,000 by
pleading their case to family members and their parents' friends, they quit
their jobs, and they headed for New Orleans in a pickup. They had not a
shred of building experience.

"My dad wouldn't even let me use his tools," Rosenburg joked, when we first

Now, seven years and 50,000 volunteers later, they've rebuilt 500 homes in
St. Bernard and New Orleans

One woman who received their help wrote a letter to say thank you: "Our
house is no longer just a building on a street in a town ravaged by a
hurricane," she said. "It is a home, handed down through four generations,
rebuilt by the loving hands of angels sent to us through you."

Amanda Hill and her grandmother, Dolores Hill, epitomize the people of St.
Bernard. When I wrote about them in 2007, they were living in a FEMA trailer
next to their flooded red brick home in Violet.

Amanda, 18, was a senior in high school, and her grandmother, 66, worked at
McDonald's. Every morning Dolores Hill got up in the dark and drove to work,
and Amanda rode with a friend to school. By the time she got home from
school in Chalmette, her grandmother was through with her shift, and Amanda
would drive the car to the Gold Star Diner where she waited tables every

It was just the two of them, because when Amanda was in fifth grade, her mom
had died of a rare cancer. She was just 28. "It was hard because she was my
mom and my daddy and the sister I never had," Amanda said.

After the storm, Dolores had new drywall installed in the house, but then
she ran out of money, so they were living day to day, waiting to hear from
the Road Home.

The only thing Amanda had salvaged from the storm was her dream jar. But
that was enough. "As soon as I saw it, I knew my dreams were safe," she

It has "dreams" written on it, above two angels holding a heart, and it has
a cork stopper. It had been an eighth-grade graduation gift from her
fifth-grade teacher, who told Amanda to write down her dreams and put them
in the jar. Those dreams included graduating from high school with honors
and going to college.

"Most of all, I wanted to just be happy and live the life my mom didn't have
a chance to live," she said.

That year, the St. Bernard Project helped the Hills rebuild their house, and
Amanda graduated from Chalmette High School with honors. Last year, her
second dream came true when she graduated from the LSU School of Nursing.

She recently said she's working as a cardiac-neuro nurse in the ICU at
Ochsner Foundation Hospital, and next year she hopes to go back to school
and become a nurse practitioner. Her grandmother is in remission from breast
cancer and doing well.

"We still live in our house in Violet," she said.

Her greatest lesson learned from Katrina? "No matter what comes your way,
you just have to keep going," she said. "And you can get over it. You really
can come out on top."


Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com

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