In my last post I wrote about a voluntour organization that remembers—they are committed to continuing rebuilding efforts in Haiti while many other organizations have moved on. Today I’d like to focus on another sustained effort I read about in AFAR, this time on domestic soil. The St. Bernard Project works with volunteers in Louisiana, continuing the vast rebuilding effort in the extended wake of Hurricane Katrina.
The St. Bernard Project was founded in March of 2006 by Liz McCartney and Zack Rosenburg, two professionals from Washington D.C. They both volunteered after Katrina and were so inspired by the people they met and the culture of the region that they decided to dedicate themselves to doing more. They work to create safe and secure housing, ensure that citizens are mentally healthy, and create jobs for veterans in the community.
Often aid organizations arrive in a location with a specific agenda. Perhaps they want to build a school or create a town hall. While these projects are helpful and well intentioned, they may not meet the most pressing needs of the community. It is the people who live in a place who know what projects are needed most. The St. Bernard Project responds directly to feedback from local members of the communities in which they work. I think this really sets SBP apart.
The wellness and mental health components of SBP are also unique. I think organizations the world over should take a lesson from SBP on this point. People who have experienced a life-altering natural disaster are susceptible to a wide range of mental illnesses, from depression and anxiety to PTSD. Many of these people have lost loved ones and are grieving, while others have lost their livelihoods or their homes. A community cannot recover when many of its members are struggling with deep emotional scars.
Even with the proliferation of advertising campaigns, mental illness is still stigmatized in the U.S. Mental health services are not covered under most insurance plans and first-responders are rarely trained to identify or treat the cognitive effects of a disaster. I think it is one of the most dangerously overlooked aspects of our everyday lives. When it is overlooked in the wake of a major destructive event like Katrina, families fall apart, people commit suicide, they become violent towards others, or they turn to drugs or alcohol to dull the pain. The St. Bernard Project is addressing these needs. I sincerely hope this is a precedent that others follow.