USA: Rotarians rebuild hope in New Orleans

from Rotary
Published on 18 Oct 2006
By Bettina Kozlowski
Rotary International News

When U.S. President George W. Bush spoke on 29 August at Warren Easton Fundamental Senior High School in New Orleans, which he selected as his platform to address the nation on the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, members of the Rotary Club of New Orleans were among the VIP guests. They watched as the first lady, Laura Bush, handed the school's librarian a $70,000 check to rebuild Warren Easton's damaged library.

But long before the president and the first lady came to Warren Easton, Rotarians rallied to save the public school that had been a source of pride in a shaken community.

The devastation

After the hurricane struck on 29 August 2005, the city's levees burst, and 5 feet of water covered Warren Easton's first floor. The flood damaged electrical wiring, plumbing, walls, floors, furniture, and equipment. In all, the historical landmark building suffered $3 million in damages.

The devastation was more than financial, though: It was also emotional. Warren Easton had long served as a beacon of hope for many inner-city, minority families. The school had garnered a national Blue Ribbon designation from the U.S. Department of Education for its students' academic excellence. On average, 90 percent of its graduates went to college, a rarity among New Orleans public schools.

When the school board announced Warren Easton might need to be sold and transformed into a condominium complex, the news was a blow to the community. Judy Demarest, a veteran Warren Easton English teacher and the school's Interact club faculty adviser, appealed to local Rotarians for help. They didn't let her down. They couldn't. The Rotarians knew what the school meant to poor New Orleans residents.

Calling all Rotarians

"Without the kids, this place will remain desolate," says Henry Lowentritt, of the Rotary Club of New Orleans, who's managed the Warren Easton renovation project since March. "Teachers, parents, and kids who've left New Orleans won't be back without quality schools."

Along with the school's newly established charter foundation, New Orleans Rotarians lobbied the city school board to reopen Warren Easton in time for this year's fall semester. In the club's weakened state, the Big Easy Rotarians couldn't have done it alone, says Lowentritt. Many members were recovering from personal hurricane damage, and some clubs had lost their meeting spaces.

Clubs in California, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York, and even Germany helped the New Orleans Rotarians in raising $60,000 for rebuilding Warren Easton.

But Rotarians donated much more than money to the project. They also gave 2,000 hours of "sweat equity," as Lowentritt puts it. Construction-savvy club members and other volunteers from across the country traveled to New Orleans to work at the school for two weeks. The first of two teams of Rotarians from Berkeley, California, arrived on 7 June to work in the sweltering heat, without plumbing or electricity in the school building. They came armed with spades, brushes, 60 gallons of paint, and $24,000 for the school. Soon, they were joined by Interactors, Rotaractors, and other volunteers from Pennsylvania and New York.

"The hardest part was keeping people from painting," jokes Grier Graff, a member of the Rotary Club of Berkeley who coordinated the daily crew of about 60 Rotarian construction workers. "It was a little bit like controlling anarchy."

Visiting Rotarian volunteers paid for their own airfare and lodging. They brought kneepads, putty knives and, in some cases, respirators to work eight-hour shifts inside the school. They repainted and stripped about a third of the school's classrooms, the main administration office, and two staircases. They also replaced old chalkboards with new dry-erase boards and installed new bulletin boards.

The volunteers ran a 300-foot garden hose from a working faucet to a second-floor restroom so they could use running water, and they drew electricity from cables strung from utility poles on the street.

As the group worked inside, former students and other teens and parents clamored for the school application forms Demarest was handing out in front of the building. The entire community waited in anticipation for Warren Easton to open.

The rebuild

On 7 September, the Rotarians' dream came true. Club members stood in front of the school's marquee, where a Service Above Self banner hung, and welcomed back some of the 800 students who poured through Warren Easton's doors for their first day of school since Katrina struck. Despite struggling to overcome personal losses, they had helped build a new, improved New Orleans. "This is the most important thing we, as a club, have ever done," Lowentritt says. He pauses. "It's the most important thing I've ever done."

The Rotarians see their work at Warren Easton as far from over, though. They still want to improve plumbing, replace window shades, repair and resupply science labs, and refurbish athletic facilities.

With a recent $33,000 Rotary Foundation Matching Grant to help cover those needs, along with more funds coming from the New Orleans club and the Warren Easton Charter Foundation, the school can look forward to $100,000 in new donations.

The Warren Easton Charter Foundation vice president, Arthur Hardy, says the school may not have reopened without the Rotarians' help. "The long-range effects of their work will be evident to students for years to come, but more importantly, the example set by Rotary will live in our hearts forever," he says.