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For More Information: Dr. Watson Scott Swail (757) 430-2200 or wswail@educationalpolicy.org.

 

A Special Letter from EPI President & CEO Dr. Watson Scott Swail

 

February 13, 2009

 

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

 

This past week, while attending the GEAR UP workshop in New Orleans, I decided to take a detour to check out St. Bernard Parish, the hardest hit area of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. Down in the French Quarter, no one would know of the devastation left by the hurricane. Everything looks as it always did. With Mardi Gras coming in the next few weeks, New Orleans does what some would say it does best—party!

 

But a few short miles away, a different reality is painfully evident to even the most casual observer. Vacant houses with X’s spraypainted on the outside. Concrete slabs denoting where houses once stood--where families once lived. Katrina may have happened more than three years ago, but the effects of that powerful storm are still being felt by the people of St. Bernard Parish. Over 1,500 families live in FEMA trailers, waiting and hoping that their homes may be re-conditioned. But they still wait.

 

My trip was specially hinged around visiting the St. Bernard Project, and even more specifically to meet with its co-founder, Liz McCartney (see below), who was recently awarded the CNN Hero of the Year for 2008. I was introduced to Ms. McCartney, like millions of viewers, via the CNN televised event hosted by Anderson Cooper back in November 2008. I vividly remember lying in bed, reading the paper, casually watching the program. Then came the video vignette on the St. Bernard Project. Simply stated, it was captivating—beyond compelling.

 

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In February of 2006, Liz and her partner, Zack Rosenburg, were living comfortably in Washington, DC. She ran a community-based non-profit and is a former middle-school teacher; he served as a criminal defense attorney. Liz and Zack shared the emotion of millions of Americans, Canadians, and others from around the world who were shocked at the aftermath of Katrina. Not just the damaging stories of FEMA, but the true needs of the people of New Orleans and other areas affected by Katrina. They decided to visit New Orleans and see what they could do. In a couple of weeks, Zack returned to DC; Liz stayed. Within a few months they both left their jobs and permanently relocated to New Orleans.

 

What they found was a Parish in critical condition. Immediately after the levees broke, the waters rose precipitously in St. Bernard Parish. In one industrial area of the Parish, Frank While, an older gentleman, had decided to ride out the storm. The waters forced him to the second floor of the unit. A local fisherman rescued Frank from his second floor window and transplanted him to a rooftop where he would be safe until responders could come. After three days, a group came to give him water. After five days he was finally rescued in earnest by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who were the first responders in the Parish, due in part because the Louisiana National Guard were busy in Iraq.

 

When Liz and Zack went to St. Bernard Parish, they met Frank. They learned of his story, learned about the Parish, and found a niche for their volunteerism. The Project originally was designed to provide a tool co-op to dwellers for rebuilding houses in the Parish. But they quickly found that the need was much more basic. The people of SBP not only needed the tools and resources, but needed help building the houses. So Liz and Zack started a construction company that relied exclusively, at least in the beginning, on volunteers, and they started rebuilding houses. To this day, the St. Bernard Project is still headquartered in Frank White’s old house.

 

Project work isn’t simply a matter of tearing down and putting up drywall. More accurately portrayed, it is akin to gutting a house, scrubbing all the studs and wood surfaces with a high-octane mold cleaner, running new electrical systems, including HVAC, installing drywall, taping, sanding, and painting walls, and installing all new woodwork and cabinets. That’s the abbreviated list. With the exception of exterior walls, they were gutting and rebuilding entire houses. With virtually no experience.

 

The short story is that since that time, the St. Bernard Project has rebuilt more than 185 homes. Next week it will finish two more. And in the next month, 10.

 

Gretchen Wieland, a 23-year old AmeriCorps volunteer and University of Kansas grad from Illinois, gave me a tour of the Parish and of a few of the Project homes. The first was an almost-completed ranch where a 20-something volunteer was installing kitchen cabinets and putting finishing touches on the abode so it can deliver to the owners, Mr. and Mrs. Scuich. The house, itself, looked wonderful, and was probably a lot nicer in this condition than it had ever been before. The final cost: $12,000 in materials. Labor: $0. Sometime in the next couple of weeks, the St. Bernard Project will have a celebration party, as they have for almost all the 185 hours completed to date. Think Ty Pennington and the Extreme Makeover--Home Edition on steroids. That’s what the Project is doing.

 

The second house was a starter project that had recently been gutted. A Project crew of volunteers had finished scrubbing the studs and were now putting on a coat of latex paint to seal in any residual mold. As Gretchen told me, mold is a tricky fungus to remove. Initially, only half of Project houses were passing mold inspection after they were scrubbed, so several of the volunteers conducted their own experiments to see what it would take to bring the success rate up by changing the mold strategies. On the whiteboard in the main Project office, the number ‘20’ looms near the bottom right corner. This is the number of consecutive houses that have passed inspection on their first review. The volunteers figured it out.

 

Each house takes, on average, about 12 weeks to finish. It used to take about 15 weeks, and they hope to bring that down to about 10 weeks in short order. The private joke in New Orleans is that while Brad Pitt has made major news for his ‘green’ building project in the lower 9th ward, that effort has yielded only five houses thus far, compared to the 185 of St. Bernard Project.

 

A different group of volunteers come in weekly, and sometimes daily. The Project provides training to the many volunteers who have never seriously hammered studs or screwed drywall before. Twelve weeks start to finish… passing all inspections. Fairly impressive.

 

They come from around the US, Canada, Australia, Europe, and places one wouldn’t expect. During my visit, a Torontonian was installing electrical wire. Another person, Len Haim, came down from New Jersey with his son on February 2nd is still working. Len and his son figured they could help. Len told me that the experience has already been “life changing” to him and his son. It’s easy to appreciate why. To date more than 10,000 volunteers have worked with the St. Bernard Project.

 

Some volunteers have made repeat trips to St. Bernard Parish, because, as suggested to me by “Boogie” the cab driver on my drive back to the posh Hilton Hotel, “the volunteers get more out of this than the Parishioners.” So they return to help out and inject themselves with another dose of “life.”

 

While inside the second house on my tour, there was not just a sense of purpose among the seven or eight people working, but perhaps more importantly, a sense of camaraderie. They were enjoying what they were doing, even 10 hours into the day. As Gretchen said, “We spend so much time together, we joke that we don’t have a life outside of the Project.” That’s because the Project, at least at this juncture, “is” their life.

 

The CNN Hero Award was a major news event, and one of the more remarkable and appropriate events I have seen a news agency conduct. All 10 of the Heroes selected were appropriately nominated. Note that these Heroes aren’t famous people. They are all individuals who did something well beyond the usual call of duty. As I said to Liz, there are those who think, and those that do. These are people that “do.”

 

Liz will be the first to downplay her role. She is a pretty, smart (we share graduate degrees from The Graduate School of Education and Human Development at The George Washington University in DC, so she must be special), and modest to a fault. Before Liz arrived at the office, I was given a two-bit tour of the premises. It was all under construction to make way for the growth of the organization. Since Liz’s selection as Hero of the Year, donations, volunteerism, and the number of homes under rebuilding have increased. I was led into Liz’s small office, complete with a steel, mostly barren industrial shelving unit. On the middle shelf, facing upside down, was her dusty, CNN Hero Award (see below). Note that I had to turn it up so you could see what it was. The Award, which was presented in front of millions of people around the world and live in the Kodak Theater in Hollywood (where they hand out the Oscars), was not in the lobby; not in a glass unit to showcase the honor. It was gathering dust.

 

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But this is Liz. She will be the last to suggest she is a Hero, because she knows it isn’t about her, nor about Zack, nor is it about all the volunteers. It is, first and foremost, about the people of St. Bernard Parish, who, after the Canadians came in to help, realized they had to make this work. They had to clean up. They had to rebuild their lives. It just so happened that Liz and Zack provided the conduit to help make it happen.

 

To me, that is exactly what makes Liz and Zack heroes. Because they chose to “do,” not just think. While I was visiting the SBP, Zack was busy in Washington, DC, speaking with Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and others about creating a new federal funding program to support returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan to build houses in New Orleans and other places in need around the US. And they are talking of expanding to Galveston and other areas hard hit by Hurricane Ike.

 

While there is still plenty of work to do in New Orleans, Liz and Zack are looking beyond to see how their operation can benefit other communities. Heroic.

 

On May 27th, Liz McCartney, with a little help from her St. Bernard Project friends, will be our special guest at Retention 2009. While their work has little to do with high school graduation and postsecondary retention, I believe their work deserves special recognition and that conference participants will resonate to the Project’s focus on disenfranchised individuals who are rising above great odds to put their lives back together.

 

In support of their work, we are designing a special fundraising event and will be asking participants to make donations to the project. EPI will match the first $5,000 in donations to the project, and St. Bernard Project t-shirts will be available for purchase. We are trying to schedule a tour of their work for those interested in seeing what vision can do to a community.

 

Our work in education is important. The work of professionals around the US, Canada, and beyond is critical in helping improve the economy and improve lives. We are hosting Retention 2009 in New Orleans because it seemed like a simple contribution we could make to this special place. Even with budget cuts and freezes across the US, I hope you can support and attend our conference and let your colleagues know about it. I also hope you are as touched by the work of the St. Bernard Project and consider helping out in any way possible. Let’s support the Heroes all over New Orleans this May.

 

The old adage is still true: Life is short. Leave your mark.

 

Best regards,

 

Scott

Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute

 

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The Educational Policy Institute is a 501(c)3 corporation based in Virginia Beach, Virginia, with offices in Winnipeg, Canada, and Melbourne, Australia. The mission of the Educational Policy Institute is to “expand educational opportunity for low-income and other historically-underrepresented students through high-level research and analysis.” For more information on EPI or its evaluation work, visit www.educationalpolicy.org.