For many of us, our experience with superheroes—what they look like, what their powers are, what they do—often comes from the stories that we read. But heroes aren’t only found in far away places—as can be seen in the case of Liz McCartney, BC ’94, who was the 2008 CNN Hero of the Year and is now a nominee for CNN’s Superhero of the Decade award.
In the aftermath of the devastation from Hurricane Katrina, McCartney became a local hero to many in the affected communities. Completely captivated by the devastation that she saw, McCartney felt like she couldn’t simply stay in New Orleans for two weeks and then walk away. What was supposed to be a one-time trip down to the city to serve as a volunteer led to a lifetime commitment serving in in disaster recovery and the emergence of an organization dedicated to doing so. About 12 years later, the St. Bernard Project (SBP) has had well over 180,000 volunteers, rebuilt over 1,592 homes, and extended its reach far past New Orleans, currently serving 10 different communities, in addition to others it has helped in the past.
“I take the nomination as such an incredible honor,” McCartney said. “But I really view it as a tribute to all people who are doing such amazing work in disaster recovery. SBP is a huge collaborative effort with so many moving parts. … It’s not about me—it’s about these people and the people we help.”
About six months after the storm, McCartney and her then-boyfriend Zack Rosenburg, who is now her husband, traveled down to New Orleans along with her mom, with the intention of staying and helping out for a while. At that point McCartney realized neither how deeply impacted she would be by what she saw, nor that the experience would be the starting point of the next chapter in her pursuit of helping others.
“It was just the most shocking thing I had ever seen,” McCartney said as she recalled arriving in the devastated New Orleans. “To see that level of destruction and devastation six months after [Hurricane Katrina] was very eye-opening and helped me realize that this whole system of disaster recovery and response in our country, at the time, was really broken.”
Upon seeing first-hand the level of destruction that communities were being forced to live in and cope with, McCartney and Rosenburg were determined to find some way to help beyond what could be accomplished in a mere two weeks. After returning to D.C., they spent time researching numerous organizations, but failed to find one that aligned enough with their ideas and thinking. Instead, McCartney and Rosenburg decided to take a leap: In McCartney’s parents’ living room, the two, surrounded by her parents’ friends eager to donate, shared the stories of the people they met and the things they had seen over a giant pot of jambalaya, and the St. Bernard Project began to take shape.
Named after St. Bernard Parish, a small community right outside of New Orleans and the first site at which the couple volunteered, the St. Bernard Project began in the summer of 2006 with what McCartney and Rosenburg believed to be a well thought-out plan in which they were going to open a tool-lending library, buy people furniture, and help families send kids away to summer camps so that the parents could fix their houses. Little did they realize how quickly well thought-out plans would disintegrate amid the level of devastation that New Orleans was facing at that point in time.
When she found out their plan wouldn’t necessarily work at that point in time, McCartney was forced to rethink. Starting by working on one couple’s home with four volunteers in the summer of 2006, the group dove right in as they realized that the community didn’t need all these big plans at that point—they just needed someone to help now. With the focus now shifted to home repair, by December of that year project had four houses under construction and dozens of volunteers.
“Have you ever seen that really corny movie Field of Dreams? There’s this classic Kevin Costner line, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ and that was sort of our experience,” McCartney said.
McCartney says none it would have been possible without getting her start at BC.
Hailing from Washington, D.C., where she spent her elementary and high school years in Catholic schools, McCartney had always been aware of Boston College as a potential next step on a trip to campus with girls from her high school, she instantly fell in love with BC, as she was encouraged by its strong sense of community and realized that BC was a place where friendships really mattered.
A couple of visits to Boston later, McCartney decided this was where she would start—which she may or may not have known at the time—what would be a lifelong journey committed to pursuing service. While academics and community were her primary motivators, highlights from BC’s football team the year she applied only help to convince her more.
“I just remember seeing Doug Flutie throw that pass, and it was such an exciting moment, and I feel that it put BC not only on the map nationally, but definitely for me too,” McCartney said, recalling the night Flutie threw his famous Hail Mary pass five years before she began her college process.
McCartney credits the Lynch School of Education for thoroughly preparing her for a full-time professional teaching job due to the experiences she had working in a variety of different schools over the course of four semesters before she graduated. McCartney’s path to service began to really take shape during her time in Lynch, as she saw teaching to be a civic-minded profession and knew that BC was a unique place to learn the lessons and qualities needed in such a field.
Following her time at BC, McCartney decided to join the Peace Corps, and she was sent to work in Lesotho.
“My time in the Peace Corps was uniquely challenging for me, which certainly opened my eyes and helped me to see what life was like for people in southern Africa, which was very different from any of my experiences up until that point,” McCartney said.
Her position as a volunteer in the Peace Corps stationed McCartney within a cluster of rural villages, where her main duties revolved around outreach to rural schools in the surrounding areas. Specifically, McCartney helped teachers with their English and introduced them to new forms of teaching methodologies.
“I can’t say I was particularly good at any of those things, but you know, I tried, and I did what I was there to do,” she chuckled.
After spending nearly two years in the Peace Corps, McCartney returned to the states, ending up in San Francisco, where she taught elementary school for about four years.
But wanting to take a less traditional route in shaping kids’ experiences and education, McCartney returned to to her hometown of D.C., where she signed on with a nonprofit that provided after-school and summer programming for at-risk kids in the area, concentrating on working with kids from fifth to eighth grade.
“A lot of the projects we did with the kids [were] sort of technology-based, which we used as the hook,” McCartney said. “I was interested to figure out how you create engaging content for that population to get them to keep coming back.”
As she continued to explore the most effective methods in teaching younger kids, McCartney simultaneously completed her master’s in curriculum and instruction from George Washington University. Having completed her higher education degree and really developed a foothold within the nonprofit and the lives of the kids she was helping in D.C., McCartney felt that she was where she was supposed to be—that is, until Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005.
McCartney and thousands of Americans journeyed down to New Orleans to help their fellow countrymen get back on their feet.
In 2008, McCartney’s efforts in New Orleans were recognized when she won CNN’s Hero of the Year award. Following the award, she continued what she had always done—rebuilding houses. With a footing in disaster recovery work, however, the St. Bernard Project decided to expand its reach. The decision, like most other big choices in life, was born over food—specifically in the line of a hot dog cart.
Recruited by some friends from the United Way, Rosenburg went down to Joplin, Mo., to aid in recovery following the tornado that hit the city in 2011. Upon arriving and directing his attention to the nearest hot dog cart, Rosenburg by chance met two community leaders in line and ended up forging a relationship with them—to the point that the St. Bernard Project decided to set up a site in Joplin.
As the organization grew, the St. Bernard Project began popping up in more and more disaster sites around the country to assist in whatever capacity of home repair needed. As the project began to grow, it also saw more success, with a major victory being its first closure of a site ever, which was actually the one in Joplin.
“In the nonprofit world, you always want to work yourself out of a job,” McCartney said.
But reaching that point of completion comes with its own unique challenges as well. Cli Roberts, the executive director of SBP’s Houston operation, explained her experience of watching how natural disaster relief efforts were shared over the news when she was growing up: There would be a lot of buzz around the need for immediate relief funds, and people would typically donate, but then once the news of the storm’s devastation expired after two weeks, everyone, including herself, would forget about it.
Roberts is most most interested in the education component of SBP’s disaster relief—the organization tries to spread awareness of the extent of time over which disaster relief takes place, which often can be anywhere from months to years depending on the severity of the storm.
“With SBP, though, I feel that we put a lot of emphasis on getting the information out there about long-term effects of disaster and what long-term recovery actually looks like, which I think is super important,” Roberts said.
The need for disaster recovery will always be present, and so will SBP. Countless numbers of homes and lives have been re-built as a product of the work that SBP commits on a daily basis, much of which McCartney credits to the dedication of volunteers, donors, and staff. Amid her nomination, McCartney notes that what’s most important to her is continuing to repair the communities SBP currently serves.
“We’ve just been really lucky to have a lot of people come in,” McCartney said. “They’ve done the volunteer work and seen the devastation and the impact [of] doing a couple of days, a week, a few weeks of service—and the impact that can have on somebody else’s life. And I’d say that having that group of people, who’ve come through and actually done the work and seen the impact it has had, has helped us so much in terms of building the organization.”
*It was previously stated that the St. Bernard Project has rebuilt over 12,000 homes. That is incorrect, the St. Bernard Project has rebuilt 1,592 homes.
Photo Courtesy of St. Bernard Project