Build for James, NOLA, November, 2010
Liz: Hi Joan! Here is our story... We had been a part of Americorps*NCCC out in California. Since our program started a week after Katrina had hit, Americorps decided to send teams down to the Gulf. One of our projects was in St. Bernard Parish about six months after the storm. Similar to Liz [McCartney] and Zack[Rosenberg]'s story [the co-founders of St. Bernard Project, Liz was CNN Hero of the Year for 2008], we were some of the first volunteers down there. We worked with the Parish government and fire fighters gutting houses. Since we were some of the first volunteers down there, our team helped organize the gutting process. When we first arrived, our whole team gutted but there was soon to be a large influx of volunteers because of spring break. The camp and parish were not ready for this, so our team helped create the infrastructure of gutting houses. We were in charge of getting tools out to volunteers, organizing who went where, and supervising the volunteers at the houses. Despite working very long hours, we loved this project and St. Bernard Parish!
James was one of my teammates. Words cannot describe what an amazing person he was. His compassion, zest for life, and loving personality have impacted all of us in such a positive way. Every day, I aspire to bring the joy that he brought to others. He tragically died April 26, 2008. Trying to turn this tragedy into something positive, as James would have done, I thought about building in his honor. So, our first Build for James was in November of 2008. We wanted to pay tribute to a beautiful life as well as all the work that James, and the rest of our Americorps class, did down in the Gulf. Also, to come full circle, we were now able to start building, something that we could not do when we were originally down there, six months after the storm. Each year, we invite whoever wants to come to help honor James' legacy. This year for our third build, we had 25 family, friends, Americorps alum, and friends of friends come from all over the country to join in this ever growing movement. Additionally, many of us have been here multiple times outside our designated build weekend since the storm hit and will continue to be here as long as we're needed.
How long did you stay that first time when you came down through Americorps? It sounds like a lot longer than just a weekend.
Drew: I've got this one, Liz........Our first "spike" (AmeriCorps term for project) was just under two months long. We were in Biloxi, MS working directly with FEMA. We lived in the SeaBee base (Navy), a giant warehouse that housed about 800 people including other volunteers, government employees, army corps of engineers, and other organizations I cannot recall at this moment. Our job was to complete paperwork with residents who received a FEMA trailer. We drove from address to address avoiding flat tires, emotional distractions, and physical obstacles in the road, trying to get the residents to fill out paperwork that seemed redundant. This spike was our introduction to Katrina and prepared us for what we encountered in St. Bernard Parish. Our work in St. Bernard Parish was our second spike, and it was also about two months long.
Drew: Our total time in the gulf was just about four months long, total. We had two separate spikes, each just under two months long. Our first spike in Mississippi was in October, six weeks after the storm hit. Our second spike - in St. Bernard Parish - started in January, five months after the storm. We now go down every year, the first weekend in November.
James painting, Mississippi disaster relief, 2005
Is there any special significance to the first week in November? And, what changes do you see since you started coming down there?
Drew: The first week of November just happened to be the time of the year we went down for the first time following James tragic accident, coincidentally (to my knowledge, at least) it is also Mrs. Karpinos' [Carolyn, James's mother] birthday.
The most obvious change over the past few years has been the gradual removal of trash and debris. There's no longer piles of trash from gutted homes lining the roads (piles, easily 10 feet tall). The trees were littered with plastic bags, homes removed from their foundations were blocking the roads, cars were everywhere but in the driveway and boats were nowhere near the river. As you saw for yourself, the parish is now dealing with empty lots and foundations; the trash and debris has been removed, but they are still waiting for the people to return to rebuild their lives and homes.
Build for James crew, NOLA, November, 2010
Carolyn Karpinos [James' mother]: Joan, Ralph and I would just like to add our thoughts. As I suspect you have already surmised, the young people with whom you've been corresponding/talking for this article and their AmeriCorps colleagues and friends are extraordinary people. Our son James was fortunate to work with them and with many other wonderful young people in AmeriCorps. He learned so much from that experience about teamwork, commitment and, of course, down in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast, about community rebuilding. Both my husband and I are so pleased and proud that Liz, Drew and all of the other friends from AmeriCorps have chosen to remember James in this way. We and our two sons have joined them there for work in the St. Bernard Parish with much joy. The "Builds for James" have been wonderful gatherings, a time for reunion, as well as a very real chance to continue the work that LIz and Drew's team and other AmeriCorps teams undertook in 2005. I think all of them consider it a wonderful opportunity to stay in touch with each other and with a community that they have grown to love.