Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Miss Evelyn

I met her for the first time in August, as an AmeriCorps member at St. Bernard Project. She spoke tenderly about the rebuilding work that had been completed at her home in St. Bernard Parish. She was astonished that so many volunteers from all around the country would come down and help, just out of the kindness of their hearts.

"When I walk in to the house, I know that the walls are filled with love. I can feel it. I watched as some of the volunteers constructed the house, they come from all over, down here to help me. I saw the writing on the walls from the volunteers, and I wanted to keep it. The next time I was there they was gone, but I just know those walls are filled with love. They don't even know me."

Her brown eyes welled up and I could see the drops collect along her lashes as she wiped the tears away. She had brassy gray hair that was short and fell around her aged face. She sat in the maroon leather chair in front of me and I carefully studied her facial expression and physical responses to the emotion she felt. Each reaction left me thinking about the millions of people in New Orleans and surrounding Parishes, affected by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and Rita. Miss Evelyn was no older than 65, with so many stories in her eyes.

She apologized for crying, and I was tempted to assure her that was not needed. Instead, I gently touched the top of her hand, and she looked up. Wiping her eyes one more time, taking one large inhale as her ribcage expanded, she began to speak again.

"All I want is to be back in my home."

Back to her kitchen to cook her family dinners with her large counter top. Back to the closet that connected her room and what was once her daughter's room. Back to the home that was destroyed 6 years ago by the floods of Hurricane Katrina and levee breakage.

A sanctuary where her memories were still captured in the foundation and framework. Where new celebrations could happen because people showed altruism and connection. The room that was once occupied by her daughter as she grew, would now be taken by her 1 year-old grand-son. The kitchen would be cooked in, and the dining room would host Thanksgiving and Louisiana shrimp boils with all of the family invited.

Miss Evelyn's mother died this past May. Her mother was going to stay in the house with her. Miss Evelyn planned on taking care of her mama, just as she did after Katrina.

"I know there's been angels all along the way to help me, and now my Mama's up there watching over as the last pieces to the house gets done. She'd be happy."

With a sweet smile, she waltzed in to my office to tell me her story, and to ask for my help with this last stretch of getting her home. It’s not easy hearing the stories of SBP’s clients, or for anyone in New Orleans helping with rebuilds. But, in the past 7 months, I’ve watched lives be transformed as the framework is fixed to standards, the walls are put up, houses are painted, and after 6 years, our homeowners are able to begin stabilizing their lives again.

Miss Evelyn's heartbreak, love and compassion, made me miss my home in Syracuse, NY.

Home is about family, struggles, love, laughter, hugs, conflict, smiles,
and always having a place to go back to. Bring families home in New Orleans, donate to SBP.

--by Jessica Leigh, Client Services Coordinator (at right at an SBP Welcome Home Party)

Friday, March 9, 2012

A Big Week at SBP, Part 2

… And now, for the rest of the story:

On Friday, SBP held a press conference celebrating its partnership and accomplishments made with Toyota. Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America, Inc. (TEMA) President Shigeki Terashi, and Toyota Product System Support Center (TSSC) President Akinori Saito, were hosted as guests of honor by SBP, the City of New Orleans, and the State of Louisiana. TSSC is the consulting arm of Toyota North America that has been working with SBP since last summer to improve our construction efficiency. To celebrate the partnership, Pat Forbes from the Louisiana Office of Community Development, State Representative Jared Brossett of District 97, and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu all attended.

Kicking off the event, Mayor Landrieu (shown with Liz McCartney and Shigeki Terashi at right) said, “It’s not enough to be well intentioned. In a world where there’s less, you have to learn to do more.” No mistakes can be afforded when these decisions and initiatives deal with people’s humanity.

His Honor stated, “The bottom line is you just have to keep moving,” and that the nation is looking to New Orleans to pioneer and lead by example disaster recovery in America.

TSSC General Manager, Jamie Benini, announced the partnerships’ major accomplishments. He said that TSSC had two primary objectives with SBP, 1) to increase the number of houses built and 2) to decrease the time it took to build a house. In the past year, Toyota has helped reduce the average time it takes SBP to build a house from 160 days to 60 days and increased the number of houses built in a month from 8.6 to 12.8. Both measurements represent a 50% improvement.

“We judge not by the cars we make,” Jamie said, “but by the people we help.”

Pat Forbes spoke briefly on behalf of the Office of Community Development (OCD). As one of SBP’s primary funders through its Neighborhood Revitalization Pilot Program, OCD, “Sees results and we are thrilled.” The OCD is glad to tell the nation that, “Yes, we’re doing the best we can with the money you gave us.”

Standing in the backyard of her as yet incomplete house, Courtenay LaRoche thanked everyone in attendance for their support and generosity. She made a special point of recognizing SBP Site Supervisors Catherine Denial and Marshall Bartlett (at left with Courtenay), who are doing a
phenomenal job rehabilitating her home. Ms. Courtenay told her story, how she and her family had to spend six years in Texas away from their home in New Orleans, how she’d been robbed, how dishonest contractors stole her money, how her children had to grow up without the childhood they deserved.

“Thank you for doing what you do for us,” Ms. Courtenay said.

After applause for Ms. Courtenay, Representative Jared Brossett of Louisiana's 97th District presented a formal commendation on behalf of the Louisiana House of Representatives to Toyota for its outstanding service to our community.

As a final highlight to this spectacular occasion, Toyota presented SBP with $100,000 to continue getting the job done by bringing people home.

Closing the ceremony, our CEO Zack echoed the sentiment of the day, “Thank you, Toyota. Let’s move forward.”

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A Big Week at SBP, Part 1

Some weeks are good and some are a challenge. Occasionally, you have a very challenging week where you can’t help but be proud to be a part of St. Bernard Project’s family. Last week was one of those.

This is, more or less, what happened:

On Thursday a group of 18 volunteers from SBP’s affiliate, Rebuild Joplin, came to volunteer with us in New Orleans (right) and learn more about SBP’s model. That evening we welcomed home Mary Jones. The next day we held a press conference in Courtenay LaRoche’s backyard celebrating our partnership with Toyota at which stakeholders, government officials, and the Mayor of New Orleans were in attendance.

Yeah. It was big.

We’re all a bit tired around the office, but we wanted to take a moment and give you the rundown.

Rebuild Joplin, founded just days after the May 11, 2011 tornado devastated their community, has been working closely with SBP to learn about disaster recovery and nonprofit construction. On Thursday, March 1st, Rebuild Joplin’s administration along with community volunteers and stakeholders came to work on SBP’s sites. An Associated Press reporter did a fantastic article on the visit. We gave them a tour of our facilities
and we told them about our hard-earned best practices in disaster recovery. And we invited them to attend one of SBP’s greatest celebrations: Mary Jones’ welcome home party (left).

Including Rebuild Joplin and Toyota representatives, there were well over a hundred volunteers and supporters from across the nation in attendance. Director of Development, Emilie Tenenbaum, thanked the crowd for “being part of the solution and the renaissance of this city.”

“Why rebuild New Orleans?” SBP Site Supervisor, Josh Chiero, asked and then gestured over his shoulder toward Mary Jones’ kitchen. “There’s sweet potato pie in the oven.” If sharing food and friendship together is not worth the effort of rebuilding, nothing is.

This was a particularly meaningful Welcome Home party for yours truly. At the beginning of my AmeriCorps term I spent my day of service, September 11th, working on Mary Jones’ house. At the time, you could still see the rafters and insulation through empty patches in the recently-applied drywall. It was incredible to see the phenomenal work that Josh and volunteers from Missouri, Chicago, Washington DC, Michigan, and many more places across the country

have accomplished with the help of funding from United Way. And while volunteers feasted on Mary's fantastic pie, her son Paul talked with the Rebuild Joplin group and signed shirts for a few members of the group (right).

It was a great day, and the week wasn't over yet. To be continued on Friday…

--By Sam, SBP Development Coordinator and AmeriCorps Member