We have all heard the saying, “what a difference a year makes!” Well then, it goes without saying what a difference 11 years makes. More than a decade ago, the flood waters of Katrina continued to linger, and calls from concerned Junior League chapters across the globe flooded in. League after League offered up support, financial aid and other assistance all in an effort to rebuild and restore New Orleans. With such an outpouring of generosity, then-President Liz Creel called on past presidents Wendy Beron and Ellen Coleman to determine how JLNO could best utilize the kindness and support of League members from around the world. “Their generosity inspired us to look beyond our own personal challenges to discover a way to make a meaningful difference in our community,” said Liz. The past presidents formed a committee comprised of mostly Sustainers. “Our Sustainers have always supported the League, but their hands-on effort in this project was unprecedented,” said past President Laura Politz. The newly formed committee set aside the first week of October in 2006 for a rebuilding project that would bring League volunteers together from chapters spanning coast to coast and even across the “pond”. Leagues Rebuilding a Better New Orleans was born.
The massive volunteer effort allowed us to focus on members of the community who were struggling to rebuild lives and in most need of help. The rebuilding initiative included home restoration, gardens, cemeteries and cultural landmarks like Willie Mae’s Scotch House. Like many other businesses, the storm forced Willie Mae’s to close its doors in 2005. In 2006, a team of League volunteers painted the interior and exterior of the restaurant. Willie Mae’s granddaughter, Ashley, helped alongside volunteers and eventually the restaurant reopened. Today, Ashley runs the day to day operations, and the critically acclaimed restaurant continues to serve up southern food to locals and visitors alike.
This past summer, Liz took a moment to reflect on the significance of the event in 2006. “[The] willingness and enthusiasm of Junior League members from all over the world to come to our assistance,” still strikes a chord with her today. So many national and international Junior League members volunteered their time and assistance. “We had so many volunteers that we actually had to find additional projects to take on at the last minute in order to ensure everyone had a meaningful job to do. That speaks volumes about our fellow league members and the bond that holds us together,” said Liz.
Photo by Stephanie Campani
Liz had the opportunity to present the concept to an even larger audience at the Association of Junior Leagues International Annual Conference. “When I spoke at the annual conference in the spring of 2006 and proposed this rebuilding idea I had no idea how powerful this movement would become. The momentum continued to build and before we knew it, Ellen, Wendy and I had 1,000 volunteers on our hands. It was truly the most incredible effort I have had the privilege to be part of, and I am so grateful for the opportunity, and proud of our League leaders and volunteers for having the fortitude to make it happen. There were more obstacles than opportunities, but somehow it all came together,” stated Liz.
“The most extraordinary part of this rebuild project was the opportunity to make such a positive impact on the lives of people who live and work in our own Freret Street neighborhood. These were our neighbors who had largely been overlooked by the massive rebuild efforts of other groups,” remarked Liz. Many of the members of the community had not received help a year after the storm. “Two of our homeowners were battling cancer, and we were able to get them both back into their houses so they could live out their remaining days in the comfort of their homes with their loved ones around them,” said Liz.
Leagues Rebuilding a Better New Orleans helped JLNO define its role in our community revitalization. In the decade since, a continuing partnership with Rebuilding Together has provided opportunities for members to restore homes and help rebuild lives. Since its inception 25 years ago, Rebuilding Together has completed more than 500 projects. It serves as a testament to the resilient nature of New Orleanians and the generosity of others across the world. Today, JLNO continues to leave a permanent stamp on the Big Easy by bettering the lives of New Orleanians with Rebuilding Together.