Habitat For Humanity kicked off the 10th year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina by building 10 homes in 10 days with its 2015 Build-A-Thon. WDSU channel 6 in New Orleans interviewed Peter Rumsey with Habitat for Humanity about the project.
Ten years ago this August, our country was shaken by Hurricane Katrina, a storm that affected millions along the Gulf Coast and in regions across the country that rose to their aid. In record numbers residents of the affected communities, national service, businesses, nonprofit organizations, churches, and volunteers worked together to rebuild communities. The Gulf Coast has come a long way since August 2005. This summer we commemorate 10 years of hard work, community resilience, and the service and innovation that continues to support an even stronger and healthier Gulf Coast.
AJ Lyman signed up to join the AmeriCorps St. Louis Emergency Response Team in the spring of 2005. The very day he had moved to St. Louis was the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall. 48 hours...
Margie Legowski and Jennifer Feltner initially got involved in relief for Hurricane Katrina through Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., which partnered with St. Rose de Lima Catholic...
Jack Styczynski joined AmeriCorps VISTA 8 years after Hurricane Katrina hit as part of his promise not to forget the rebuilding of New Orleans until the job was done. Styczynski had visited New...
Alex Curley served as an AmeriCorps member in 2000-01, and joined AmeriCorps NCCC as a team leader in 2005. Curley had just graduated college and thought the experience would be good for her...
Duncan Cheney joined AmeriCorps through the Louisiana Delta Service Corps in 2009 after a week long service trip with his church to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina during his college years...
Program Served: AmeriCorps 2005-2007, Biloxi, MS and Jackson, MS, St. Louis Emergency Response Team
Hometown: Shenandoah, IA
Alma Mater: Wabash College
Currently: Denver, CO; Emergency Management Specialist, Department of the Interior US Bureau of Reclamation
AJ Lyman signed up to join the AmeriCorps St. Louis Emergency Response Team in the spring of 2005. The very day he had moved to St. Louis was the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall. 48 hours later, he was in Mississippi taking his first steps in a new world of emergency response.
Lyman had just graduated from Wabash College with a degree in Religion and plans to eventually teach religion after his one year term of service with AmeriCorps. “My grandfather was very service-oriented, and he raised me with a spirit of service,” said Lyman. That spirit came out immediately upon his arrival at the worksites.
Having grown up in rural Iowa, Lyman had seen firsthand the destruction caused by tornadoes and floods. “I had a general sense of what hurricanes did, but had never seen the impact first hand,” he said. “I’ll never forget driving into Biloxi and Pass Christian, and seeing complete homes picked up and moved into streets. The scale of the impacts was almost overwhelming, but there was work to be done.”
Lyman and his team worked on a wide assortment of tasks, including sorting unsolicited donations, managing a point of distribution, mucking houses, managing volunteers, and helping to manage a temporary village for impacted residents.
“There was so much to do and so many talented people on my team that took on roles they never imagined they would be doing with little to no training,” he said. I knew nothing about what I was getting myself into, but I had other motivated people around me who showed me time and time again that when great things are expected, great results were entirely possible.”
He went on to establish great, lasting relationships with many of the people he worked with, saying they were the most amazing part of his time serving. Lyman met his wife during a term of service, and made a best friend that went on to be his Best Man and the godfather to his daughter.
“That is how deep our connection is, because of the service we did side by side with ERT. Our team was very lucky to be surrounded by great people who saw the need and filled the need,” said Lyman. “I loved having had a chance to work with such a great bunch of people, all united behind the spirit of service that we embodied.”
Within a few weeks of his time in Mississippi, Lyman knew he would be doing another year with Emergency Response Team, and that he had found a calling. He currently works as an Emergency Management Specialist for the Department of the Interior US Bureau of Reclamation.
“I got to do great service for my country, and I found the rest of myself,” he said. “There’s a big difference between having a job and having a calling. There’s a feeling of purpose, and I feel purposeful in my work.’
Margie Legowski and Jennifer Feltner initially got involved in relief for Hurricane Katrina through Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., which partnered with St. Rose de Lima Catholic Church in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi after the storm. Holy Trinity made a three year commitment to St. Rose in 2005 to help them with their efforts in Bay St. Louis, as well as send volunteers of their own.
Legowski was a former Peace Corps volunteer, who had volunteered in Sri Lanka the year prior to Katrina. “I didn’t necessarily have the right skills for that, like knowledge of the language for example,” said Legowski. “Katrina sounded like something I could really do, and they needed volunteers on site in Mississippi, so I went down.”
Feltner served as an AmeriCorps VISTA in 2006 and 2007 after initially getting involved in Holy Trinity’s work. “I had recently recovered from an eating disorder right before Katrina, and I had wonderful friends who helped me,” said Feltner. “I wanted to do something to help other people and not just focus on my own problems.”
The two worked very hard to set up St. Rose’s Outreach and Recovery operations. “This parish had kind of become a little distribution point, by default,” said Legowski, who was part of the committee that coordinated and prepared volunteers. “I acted as a liaison, sending individuals and small groups to different sites, and just tried to help send people somewhere that needs help.”
Coordinating these efforts was no easy task, however, as the communication in the Gulf Coast was a big issue for organizations. “It was very, very challenging, because when I first went down there, there were no systems, no databases, no protocols,” said Feltner. “There was no organized way to do this and make sure high quality work was being done. I spent a lot of time trying to develop all the systems to try to create a well-oiled machine.”
After Hurricane Rita and other storms hit Texas and other parts of Louisiana, other churches drew on their experiences with St. Rose de Lima when responding to their own disasters. “The commission and the state office were aware of this little oasis in the disaster area,” said Legowski. “It was wonderful to see AmeriCorps, AmeriCorps NCCC, and AmeriCorps VISTA come down there.”
When they left Mississippi, the difference their work made was visible alongside the work of other organizations. “It started to look like a community again instead of a disaster zone,” said Feltner, who has visited every year since her term of service ended. “It looks more normal structurally.”
Legowski took an early retirement to continue to serve, and has been spending a lot of time doing so in El Salvador. Feltner is a Wildlife Biology PhD student at North Carolina State University, and is planning a trip down to Bay St. Louis for the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
“It’s great to see all the changes that have taken place since we’ve left,” said Feltner. “But I think all of us volunteers were changed just as much.”
Program Served: AmeriCorps VISTA - 2013-Present; New Orleans, MS, Youth Rebuilding New Orleans
Hometown: Clifton Park, NY
Alma Mater: Hofstra University
Currently: New Orleans, LA; YRNO - VISTA
Jack Styczynski joined AmeriCorps VISTA 8 years after Hurricane Katrina hit as part of his promise not to forget the rebuilding of New Orleans until the job was done. Styczynski had visited New Orleans for work shortly before the storm and tried to get back into the city in the days afterward, only to find that wasn’t possible. Helping with the relief effort in Gulfport, Mississippi instead, he vowed to come back to New Orleans as soon as he could, and spent most of his vacation time over the next 8 years volunteering with various rebuilding organizations in the city.
During that period, he worked alongside many AmeriCorps members and ultimately decided to leave his career in New York as a news researcher and become a VISTA himself at Youth Rebuilding New Orleans, where he is currently serving in his second term as a volunteer coordinator and grant writer.
Having a hand in raising approximately half a million dollars for the organization, Styczynski is proud to have helped teachers buy affordable rehabilitated homes and local youth pursue their education while learning construction skills as YRNO employees.
Styczynski has had a hand in raising $500,000 for the organization, which helps teachers buy affordable rehabilitated homes and supports children in continuing their education while learning construction skills. From Styczynski’s VISTA blog he shared, “Still not halfway through the year and YRNO has already topped our 2014 total for bunkhouse revenue and volunteer donations! And no, that doesn’t even include our record-breaking Super Service Challenge and GiveNOLA Day hauls! Can’t help but feel my tenure here has been a success. Always proud to wear the AmeriCorps ‘A’ over my heart! #gettingthingsdone.”
Styczynski’s best memory is selling a house to teacher Ben Ifshin in October of this past year. “Ben Ifshin teaches biology at one of our partner schools—Sci Academy—and we finished up the paperwork on October 3rd,” said Styczynski. “No matter what I do from this point forward at YRNO, I’ll never play a bigger role in turning a house around than I did with the shotgun at 318 South Salcedo.”
Before he even began his VISTA term, Styczynski helped their Executive Director find the owner of the property and he coordinated every volunteer group that ever worked on it, including his own Tulane VISTA cohort. He helped generate publicity when tools were stolen from the site, prompting many donations, and then he was a witness at the closing. “My smiling face in front of the completed house doesn’t even fully express how happy I am to have been a part of the project,” he said. “On that porch, I greeted many fine folks from across the country, and around the world, who had a hand in getting it done. I’ll never forget it.”
Program Served: AmeriCorps NCCC - 2005-2006; Chalmette/Violet, LA - St. Bernard Parish - Dept. of Recovery
Hometown: Arlington, VA
Alma Mater: Georgetown University
Currently: SIGTARP - Operations Manager Specialist; Arlington, VA
Alex Curley served as an AmeriCorps member in 2000-01, and joined AmeriCorps NCCC as a team leader in 2005. Curley had just graduated college and thought the experience would be good for her professional development. Then, one week into her term of service, Hurricane Katrina hit, which left her and her team focused on the Gulf Coast.
“While we were watching the events unfold on the news, everyone was glad that we were there to help initially,” said Curley.
Curley’s team facilitated many projects for the St. Bernard Parish Department of Recovery. Among these, the team facilitated the gutting of 734 homes, built and maintained a base camp, coordinated over 95,500 hours of volunteer service, trained 344 team leaders from other organizations, and facilitated the removal of 367,000,000 pounds of debris.
“What make Alex and her team unique from most that served during the first year of NCCC’s response is that they volunteered for and advocated to stay on the project assignment for more than one round,” said Allison Watkins, a current unit leader in Vinton, Iowa. “A team being on a project for more than two months, specifically disaster projects that are so physically and emotionally exhausting, was really unheard of up to that point.”
Curley described her team members as dedicated, passionate, and happy to work until the job was done. “All NCCC members feel their work is important, but I think having a first year with no disaster service and comparing it to one with disaster service, you feel a different sense of reward, and everyone felt it was really meaningful.”
Curley went on to work at the Corporation for National and Community Service Headquarters, and deployed to act as a liaison between FEMA and NCCC teams when Hurricane Ike hit. She currently is an Operations Management Specialist for the Special Inspector General of the Troubled Asset Relief Program and is working for her Master’s in Emergency and Disaster Management from Georgetown University, where she was the first Georgetown student to receive funds from the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award Program.
“When most people think of an emergency management professional, they think of people with first responder or military experience, but you don’t have to come from those backgrounds,” said Curley. “The field is becoming more diverse and my Georgetown cohort reflects that.”
Program Served: AmeriCorps - 2009-2010; New Orleans, LA - Louisiana Delta Service Corps, Project Homecoming
Hometown: Fort Scott, Kansas
Alma Mater: University of New Orleans
Currently: Project Homecoming - Operations Director; New Orleans, LA
Duncan Cheney joined AmeriCorps through the Louisiana Delta Service Corps in 2009 after a week long service trip with his church to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina during his college years. Cheney wasn’t sure what he wanted to study or do after graduation, and decided to head back to Louisiana after hearing about this opportunity for service.
“Through service learning and early exposure, my service took me out of my comfortable, stable environment and exposed me to all kinds of different things,” said Cheney, who served as a worksite manager during his year of service with Project Homecoming. This entailed acting as volunteers’ liaison, teaching them construction skills, and getting them the materials they needed.
“You would be assigned to one project and see it through start to finish,” said Cheney. “You would stay three to four months on one project, so you really got to know the homeowner and neighbors.”
Cheney told a story about a final walk through and project cleanout at a home for a woman named Mrs. Valerie. “Mrs. Valerie was moved in with her things all unpacked, and on her refrigerator she had a message about how much she loved Project Homecoming in magnets,” said Cheney. “They were her words, not mine, and it was amazing she felt so strongly about our staff and organization.”
Cheney assumed he would only be with Project Homecoming one year, but one year turned into two, and then he decided to stay to finish his degree in Urban Planning from the University of New Orleans. He is now the Operations Director for Project Homecoming. “One thing I’ve been fortunate enough to experience is helping people,” said Cheney. “That will guide my career goals and other abilities to help others. I’m humbled to be in a place of service.”
Cheney recalls the mess of a city that he first showed up to, and says that New Orleans has never looked so good. “The rebuilding efforts have been larger than any government response could handle on its own, and a large part of the rebuilding has come from these service organizations,” said Cheney. “All these great things we hoped for are finally happening.”
Project Homecoming’s big mission now is affordable housing. “It’s amazing to see a family who doesn’t have a stable place to live transform to the day where they finally know they have a permanent home,” said Cheney. “I got to see boots on the ground how neighborhoods come back and how the pieces come together in a community.”
Program Served: AmeriCorps - 2004-2005; New Orleans, LA; Biloxi, MS - Hands on New Orleans
Hometown: Cincinnati, OH
Alma Mater: College of Charleston
Currently: Air BnB - Global Disaster Relief; San Francisco, CA
Kellie Bentz joined AmeriCorps in 2004 after graduating from the College of Charleston. As a recent graduate, Bentz was unsure of what direction she wanted to be going in, and her desire to serve helped her choose AmeriCorps as her next step.
Bentz served as an AmeriCorps Team Lead in Atlanta, Georgia where she was inspired by many of her experiences. “The second grader I had been tutoring for an entire year could finally write his ABCs,” Bentz shared. “It made me realize how grateful I was for having this little boy in my life to show me what a privilege it was to be able to read and write, and to never take that for granted.” It was moments like these that made Bentz wish to continue her path of service.
Bentz then went on to be a project sponsor for AmeriCorps NCCC teams in New Orleans, where she made lifelong friends and had, what she considers, the most formative experience of her life. She was involved with building, managing, and directing what became HandsOn New Orleans. HONO helps provide service opportunities to those in search of service, including out-of-state individuals, local residents, corporate teams, and tourists.
“Most days I would stand in our HandsOn New Orleans community meetings with 100 volunteers from around the world telling stories of the service they had completed that day over dinner, and have goosebumps realizing that human connection is what so many of us are thirsty for, and it was happening here,” said Bentz. “Watching people come in and do one day of service mucking and gutting a home and be ‘changed’ by their experience was amazing.”
Since March 2006, HONO has saved the community of New Orleans an estimated $13 million. They’ve engaged over 35,000 volunteers for more than 600,000 completed hours of service. Bentz served as the Executive Director for HONO until 2010, and is currently with Airbnb working with Global Disaster Relief.
The most memorable moment of Bentz’ time in New Orleans was rebuilding the Mother-in-Law Jazz Lounge with Ms. Antoinette K-doe. “I was frustrated and tired and she said to me, ‘If you give up, I give up,’” shared Bentz. “This was a 65 year old woman who had lost almost everything, working alongside us every day to rebuild her jazz lounge. She cooked lunch every day and never complained, and I realized, I had nothing to complain about.”
Serving after Hurricane Katrina helped Bentz realize she had found the path for which she had been seeking. “By joining AmeriCorps it gave me the direction for where I wanted to go in my career,” said Bentz. “It became my life’s work instead of just a job.”
Program Served: AmeriCorps NCCC - 2009-2011; New Orleans, LA St. Bernard Project
Hometown: Norwich, CT
Alma Mater: Wheelock College
Currently Employed: Norwich, CT; Mayflower Montessori - Lead Teacher of Infant/Toddler Room
When Rachel Schumacher was 16 years old, Hurricane Katrina tore a hole through one of the most important places in her life. Her grandparents had retired to Ocean Springs, Mississippi decades before, where her family would visit every year for Christmas and sometimes during the summer.
“Many of my most treasured memories are from Christmases in Mississippi, but back then I never thought it would end,” said Schumacher. “I thought I would be taking my kids to that house, but now all I would be taking them to is a slab of concrete.”
Schumacher’s grandmother had become ill and was admitted to a hospital days before Katrina hit. She and her husband survived, but when all was said and done, all they had left was what they had packed for the hospital and a few trinkets, like old Mardi Gras beads, that they were able to salvage from the wreckage of their home.
“When we learned the news it felt like my whole childhood had caved in, wiped away in the blink of an eye by a 30 foot storm surge and just disappeared,” said Schumacher, who says the trinkets they were able to save serve as broken reminders of what used to be.
While she was attending Wheelock College in 2009, Schumacher’s strong connection to the Gulf Coast drew her to the service learning trips being offered to rebuild homes in New Orleans with the St. Bernard Project. Schumacher participated in three of these trips over the course of three years at school, where she discovered her love for service.
Her favorite memories from serving came from interactions with the homeowners. She remembered One memory she shared was an emotional moment when a homeowner was able to return to his rebuilt house to put the house numbers back on. “He was reclaiming his house,” said Schumacher. “Everyone was crying. It was impressive to see how this man could go through so much in five years and finally be able to come back home.”
Working with the St. Bernard Project first introduced Schumacher to AmeriCorps programs, and after spending her first year after graduation with a HealthCorps program, she joined AmeriCorps NCCC Class 19. “It was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” she said. “Because of my deep connection to the Gulf Coast and the impact Katrina had and continues to have on that area, I discovered service in a way I never would have otherwise.”
Schumacher currently works as a Lead Teacher at Mayflower Montessori in Norwich, Connecticut, but she hopes to return to a more service-oriented career. “Although Katrina took away many things that I will never get back, when I reflect on the situation I realize that she the storm also gave me something in return - a deeper understanding of myself, a respect for others, and a love of service.”
Program Served: AmeriCorps VISTA - 2007-2008; New Orleans, LA at Tulane University Center for Public Service, Rebuilding Together New Orleans
Hometown: Bradford, PA
Alma Mater: Dickinson College
Currently Employed: New Orleans, LA; Rebuilding Together New Orleans - Director
Jon Skvarka, one of the first AmeriCorps members to serve with Rebuilding Together New Orleans, now serves as its Director and has made New Orleans his home. Skvarka initially came to New Orleans as part of an Alternative Spring Break program through Dickinson College, and the experiences he had inspired him to come back and stay even longer.
“I didn’t have time for public service in college, so I tried to make up for that with AmeriCorps,” said Skvarka. “When I first got involved in 2006, I really felt like New Orleans was a place I wanted to be.”
As an AmeriCorps VISTA the following year, Skvarka’s duties as an information officer included writing grants, working with neighborhood leaders to write homeowner biographies and neighborhood history, writing in house publications, and working to find resources for low income homeowners who needed repairs. Skvarka described his work as “behind the scenes,” but that’s how he liked it.
During his VISTA year, Skvarka got a different motivation for his work. “My grandfather moved into assisted living, and it was really tough on our family that he had to leave the only place he had ever called home,” said Skvarka. “Watching that motivated me to help homeowners who were in a similar situation. Katrina had devastated the only place they had ever called home, and I wanted to help them get that back.”
In 2008, Rebuilding Together hosted the first ever NBA All-Star Day of Service. That year the NBA All-Star Game was hosted in New Orleans, the first big event of its kind to be hosted since Katrina hit in 2005. NBA players and hundreds of other volunteers worked on the total renovation of two houses that day.
“It was the first large event that our small organization had done,” said Skvarka. “It was great to know that we could handle this and had the capacity to take on more money and more staff. Being able to be the point of contact and coordinating the whole event and then seeing how it affected the community was really great.”
Skvarka has now been with Rebuilding Together for nine years, to which he said, “I never thought that would be possible. We wouldn’t still be here without AmeriCorps.”
Program Served: AmeriCorps - 2006-2008; Biloxi, MS; Jackson, MS | Equal Justice Works
Hometown: Jackson, MS
Alma Mater: College of Charleston
Currently: Jackson, MS; Attorney General’s Office - Special Assistant Attorney General
Crystal Utley returned to her home state of Mississippi as an AmeriCorps Attorney after Hurricane Katrina to put her legal skills to work. She served with Equal Justice Works in 2006 and 2007 with the Mississippi Center for Justice in Biloxi, MS.
While with Equal Justice Works, Utley managed Hurricane Katrina legal aid and pro bono for the state of Mississippi, including volunteer recruitment and training, community outreach and legal clinics, as well as case management. Utley represented Katrina survivors with urgent disaster-related legal problems as well as representing housing nonprofits on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“It was the best feeling when you knew someone was going to be evicted from their FEMA trailer that day, and we were able to stop it and help them from being homeless and they could stand there and thank us,” said Utley.
After her AmeriCorps term, Utley stayed in Biloxi and continued working for the Mississippi Center for Justice where she recruited and managed over 200 national and local pro bono attorneys, in addition to over 100 law students, per year, to address Hurricane Katrina-related legal needs and other social justice issues, such as home repair fraud.
“The most rewarding part of the whole experience in general was to be able to help a very resilient people,” said Utley. “They were determined to stay in their communities and recover despite many odds against them, and that was humbling.”
Utley currently works as a Special Assistant Attorney General for the Mississippi Attorney General’s office. “I made a large amount of connections with the government, the American Bar Association, and multiple agencies in my role with AmeriCorps and the Mississippi Center for Justice,” said Utley. “Coming on board with AmeriCorps it was more than just a door opening, it was on a much greater scale. I was able to accomplish whatever I put my mind to.”
Equal Justice Works wasn’t in Mississippi before Hurricane Katrina, but the organization is still there today. “I was given a big leadership opportunity that I would not have otherwise had, and we were able to have a real impact on the coast. We really set a standard, and it motivates me to keep doing things at that level.”
Program Served: AmeriCorps, AmeriCorps NCCC - 2007-2008; Atlanta, GA/New Orleans, LA
Programs: Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, Teach for America
Hometown: San Diego, CA
Alma Mater: Tulane University
Currently: unCommon Construction - Founder/Executive Director; New Orleans, LA
Aaron Frumin’s involvement in service began after Hurricane Katrina hit when he called the Red Cross hotline to make a $25 donation. While on the phone, he realized that he wanted to do more, and by the end of the call the operator had signed him up for a shift the following day. A few months later in November of 2005, Frumin was deployed to New Orleans for three weeks to help with bulk distribution of food, water, buckets, bleach, and other essential items.
“It’s tough to describe what it was like at that time,” said Frumin. “It was easy to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the destruction and succumb to a sense of hopelessness. There was a lot of everything…wreckage and tears, sure, but, also community and a strong sense of resilience.”
Frumin learned about AmeriCorps NCCC during his time with the Red Cross, and decided to join after being impressed by the team members’ commitment and ability to come through for the city in such a tough time. In 2007, Frumin’s team was assigned to return to New Orleans, something that made him nervous after having been so involved in the relief effort.
“Those concerns were alleviated my first day on a build site,” said Frumin. “We weren’t just giving out water anymore. We were rebuilding the city, come hell or high water - and probably both. No other project could’ve compared to the sense of accomplishment, community, and personal satisfaction of a day spent on the build site.”
After AmeriCorps NCCC, Frumin took a job as a house leader with the New Orleans affiliate and Habitat for Humanity. After three years there, he went back to earn his degree from Tulane University, and then went on to teach with Teach for America for three years in Colorado. Frumin missed physical work, being outside, and working on collaborative projects, like the ones he worked on with AmeriCorps NCCC, and when thinking about the impact he wanted to make, he kept coming back to thoughts of New Orleans.
Frumin returned to the Big Easy in September of 2014 to create unCommon Construction (uCC), a youth development program that builds character by building houses with currently enrolled high school students. The profits from the sale of the houses pay the apprentices through weekly stipends and cumulative scholarships.
“AmeriCorps taught me valuable lessons about teamwork and selflessness. Habitat showed me how strong a collective impact could be. Teach for America gave me a language and a more personal understanding of the deeply rooted problems facing our communities,” he explained. “unCommon Construction is my attempt to bring the best parts of these experiences together – a sense of teamwork, accomplishment and accountability towards a common goal, reflection and growth through meaningful work and expanded opportunities as a result.”
Frumin says he’s excited for the opportunity to put hammers to nails, and continue to gain momentum toward uCC’s vision of high school graduates with the skills and resources for the college or career path of their choice.
Working for Habitat in the years after Katrina brought a lot of opportunities to be involved with challenging and rewarding worksite experiences, and serving with AmeriCorps has helped Frumin greatly, personally and professionally.
“One incredible and ridiculous thing during that time was hosting the Jimmy & Rosalyn Carter Work Project in 2008,” he said. Frumin recalls their seemingly insurmountable goal, and said that the week of the build was a blur. “When it was done, I remember our construction manager saying, ‘That was a lot of fun. Let’s never do it again!’ But I bet we all probably would.”
Program Served: AmeriCorps NCCC - 2005-2006; New Orleans, LA; Charleston, SC Hands on New Orleans
Hometown: Boston, MA
Alma Mater: Lafayette College
Currently Employed: Boston, MA; Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship - Associate Director of Programs and Events
Program Served: AmeriCorps NCCC - 2005-2006; New Orleans, LA; Charleston, SC Hands on New Orleans
Hometown: St. Augustine, TX
Alma Mater: University of Texas at Austin
Currently Employed: McKinney, TX; City of Plaino Swimmers - Bookkeeper
Best friends Kenda Kuncaitis and Amy Choi served together as AmeriCorps NCCC team members in New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina hit. Kuncaitis joined after college as a way to have some time to learn about herself while still being able to be of service, and Choi joined after being impressed by a print ad.
Kuncaitis laughed when recalling the way they had to jump right into setting up a volunteer shelter on the first day of their spike. “I remember walking into the room, and it basically happening like, ‘Hey, welcome to New Orleans! You have no beds, no food, and 100 volunteers are coming. Go build everything, go buy everything!’” joked Kuncaitis. “We just had to jump into action. I knew in that moment we were going to be so useful, so purposeful.”
The two were part of the next wave of people going down to the Gulf Coast after first responders. “We were showing these people they matter, their city matters, this matters,” said Kuncaitis. Hurricane Katrina was devastating to so many communities, but through serving, people with the passion to do something about it were able to rebuild the community and turn their sentiments into action.
“When we were there, there were still people saying they should just abandon the city,” said Choi. “The people who live there can’t even imagine that, New Orleans is so core to their identity and who they are. Being able to take actionable steps to getting these people their homes back and spreading a ripple effect of hope was the most meaningful work I’ve ever done.”
Their team worked primarily with HandsOn New Orleans during their spike, working abnormal hours through some hard weather conditions. “There was one day a storm was coming and a homeowner asked us to help, because they were worried about more rain getting into the house,” said Kuncaitis. “We worked on his roof after sundown. This memory always stands out to me because this person needed our help, and without NCCC, nobody else was going to do it.”
At the end of their AmeriCorps year, Kuncaitis, Choi, and Anthony Choi, Amy’s husband who she also met through their NCCC team, were back in New Orleans a week later, and they stayed for many years. “It was a complete redirect for my life, if we hadn’t done that spike I might have just done my year and then go back to working for a lawyer like I had done before,” said Choi. “Instead I developed long relationships with these homeowners, made lifelong friends, met my husband, and I’ve been working for non-profits ever since.”
“On a deeper level, it helped me realize that I want to be a purposeful person,” said Kuncaitis. “Giving back opened my eyes that this wasn’t just something to do on the side, this really can be your way of life, and you can improve communities while improving yourself.”
Kuncaitis will be heading back to New Orleans this summer, a city she calls “the most magical place on Earth,” and Choi said her and her husband’s next step in their road of service is figuring out a way to pass on their legacy of giving back on to their son.
Over the past 10 years, CNCS has invested more than $333,055,500 in grant awards within Louisiana and Mississippi. As we move forward, CNCS will continue investing money in support of the organizations that help Gulf Coast citizens thrive.
* The amount above represents an estimate based on historical data for dollars invested from AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, the Social Innovation Fund and other national service programs over the past 10 years. This number represents overall investment in the region that may or may not be related to recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
Estimated number of AmeriCorps members and Senior Corps volunteers who have served in Louisiana and Mississippi including fiscal year 2005 through 2014 in response to Hurricane Katrina.
The more than 39,169 members who served leveraged more than 648,251 volunteers for programs located in Louisiana and Mississippi including fiscal year 2005 through 2014 in response to Hurricane Katrina.
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Habitat For Humanity kicked off the 10th year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina by building 10 homes in 10 days with...Read More
CNCS last week kicked off its yearlong collaboration with the ABC television program “Good Morning America" and the...Read More
Habitat For Humanity kicked off the 10th year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina by building 10 homes in 10 days with its 2015 Build-A-Thon. WDSU channel 6 in New Orleans interviewed Peter Rumsey with Habitat for Humanity about the project.
CNCS last week kicked off its yearlong collaboration with the ABC television program “Good Morning America" and the Salvation Army to help rebuild the town of Pass Christian, Miss., by removing 355 tons of debris from a residential street located less than a hundred yards from where Hurricane Katrina came on shore in late August.
The storm – which hit the historic Gulf Coast town, located about 15 miles west of Biloxi, with winds of up to 145 miles per hour and a sea surge of nearly 30 feet – destroyed or left unusable nearly 75 percent of residents’ homes and 100 percent of the town’s businesses. In addition, much of the town’s infrastructure – including utilities, fire and police stations, city vehicles, and public works buildings – were destroyed.
To mark the start of the collaborative effort, more than 70 AmeriCorps members – including 30 from AmeriCorps St. Louis, 24 from the Washington State Conservation Corps, and 22 from Denver campus of AmeriCorps*National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) – participated in an intensive daylong cleanup of Seal Avenue. With support of dump trucks and heavy equipment provided by the Mississippi Department of Transportation, the AmeriCorps members removed 55 truckloads of brush and debris – approximately 355 tons’ worth – in less than a day. In addition, a team of AmeriCorps members helped local residents empty their homes of furniture, appliances, clothing, and personal effects that had been destroyed by mud, muck, and water.
“In times of crisis, citizens and volunteers make up the backbone of support for people and communities in need,” said David Eisner, CEO of the Corporation. “It will take many months, if not years, to recover from such a devastating disaster. We applaud 'Good Morning America' for committing to helping rebuild Pass Christian, and we look forward to working with them and with our other partners to help this town, indeed the entire Gulf region, get back on its feet as quickly as possible."
Pass Christian is “Good Morning America” co-anchor Robin Roberts’ hometown, which prompted the show to focus its efforts there. The Corporation was asked to be a partner because of its expertise in organizing and managing volunteers, its experience with disaster relief, and its proven ability to help people rebuild their homes and lives. Also participating in the rebuilding effort is the Salvation Army, which will help coordinate donations of money, goods, and services.
AmeriCorps Alum and Marine Veteran, Reese May, recounts his service as an AmeriCorps member in New Orleans and the importance of national service. Reese served with St. Bernard Project in 2011 supporting disaster-impacted residents and families in the New Orleans area.
On August 29,2005, I was in Al Qa'im, a small Iraqi town on the Syrian border. I had three weeks left on my first deployment to Iraq and I could hardly wait to get home to my family. As my unit (an Anti-Terrorism Marine reserve unit comprised entirely of Mississippi and Louisiana residents) prepared for one of our final operations, we saw limited coverage of the storm's approach on a chow hall TV. It was increasingly unclear to what "home" we might return. The rest of the story you already know.
The storm was devastating, the government response abhorrent, and even today, the recovery incomplete. 10 years later, more than 5,000 New Orleanians still lack the financial resources to return to their homes. The composition of many neighborhoods has changed and others have yet to return. But despite the storm's destruction, and the ongoing problems with disaster recovery in America -- New Orleans' story is hardly all doom and gloom. In the years since Katrina, New Orleans has given many the opportunity to become our very best selves.
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