Pulling Up Roots To Plant Seeds of Hope

Zach Rosenburg and Liz McCartney traded in their Capitol Hill lives to move south and start the St. Bernard Project. The two, along with many volunteers, build homes in St. Bernard Parish that were wiped away by Hurricane Katrina.
By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 21, 2008

CHALMETTE, La. Not so long ago, it was tailored suits, power lunches and a comfortable Capitol Hill apartment for Zach Rosenburg and Liz McCartney.

These days, they wear battered shorts, munch donated power bars, work in a storefront office and sleep far from their former lives in a leaky "shotgun" house in hurricane-prone New Orleans.

Days spent in quiet offices have been replaced with hammering and drilling. Their colleagues are no longer fellow lawyers and nonprofit managers but volunteer carpenters and plumbers. And just as Rosenburg and McCartney have transformed their own lives, they are hoping to transform the lives of thousands still homeless because of Hurricane Katrina.

Two years ago, the couple gave up jobs, friends and comfortable salaries in Washington to move south and start, from the ground up, an organization that rebuilds homes in St. Bernard Parish. The gritty community of blue-collar workers, fishermen and oil refinery workers was all but wiped from the map when Katrina blew ashore in 2005.

Even though they barely knew which end of a hammer to hold, they embarked on a mission that they simply called the St. Bernard Project. First learning basic construction skills, then growing more sophisticated and using their professional expertise to seek grants and donations, Rosenburg and McCartney slowly but surely built an organization. It has turned into one of the largest of its kind in the region because of two things: a steady supply of volunteers and an even more constant flow of people in need.

As the Gulf Coast rebuilds after Hurricane Ike and work continues long after Katrina, the St. Bernard Project may be a model of how small nonprofit organizations can help private property owners who lack insurance.

"If it weren't for this place, we wouldn't be in our house," said St. Bernard resident Charlene Huerstel, 45. The group built her three-bedroom home after she and her husband, David, disabled with chronic hepatitis C, had run out of money.

"It's wonderful," she said. "They come down and help people they don't even know. It's the great American spirit."

* * *

On their first trip to New Orleans in January 2006, the couple did not plan to become the Bob Vilas of the volunteer crowd.

They had met at a bar during a Scrabble tournament and have been together six years. Rosenburg, 35, went to American University law school and played golf with a 16 handicap. McCartney, 36, grew up in Washington, attended Georgetown Visitation and George Washington University and ran marathons.

Like thousands of Americans, they traveled to New Orleans after Katrina to see how they could help. They ended up in St. Bernard, southeast of New Orleans, serving food and dispensing clothing. They heard the horror stories of bodies floating by, of homes ripped from their foundations, of entire families homeless and distraught. All of St. Bernard's 27,000 houses were damaged or destroyed.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company