The Dirty Dozen Reflect on Ten Years of Volunteering

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For many of the Dirty Dozen, the story starts August 27, 1965, when they had barely arrived in New Orleans to start their freshman year at Newcomb College (the women’s college at Tulane University). Some were in the dorms, others still in hotels. Those in the dorms were told by their house mother to bring their mattresses down to the first floor hallway, where they would be sleeping their first weekend at school because it was the safest place in the building–Hurricane Betsy was just hours away. Perhaps it was this experience that led them to have such a powerful response when, decades later, Hurricane Katrina would devastate the city.

Through their college years, some would find ways to give back to the community, tutoring or volunteering at clinics, but service was not yet a requirement at the school. Decades later, their connection to the city remained, however, and when Hurricane Katrina hit, they began to reach out to each other to find out how they could help. Cheryl Zaccaro, a former occupational therapist from Massachusetts, is credited by the others as guiding the group, as she had previous experience with Habitat. They decided right away that they wanted to do something that would have a direct impact, so they signed up to volunteer with NOAHH.

The damage from the storms meant that most people could not get back to the city immediately, so it was December before twelve sorority sisters of Sigma Delta Tau–nicknamed “the Dirty Dozen,” though more have joined since–came to help build. Despite some bitter cold weather for outdoor work, they returned the next year and the next, again and again, ongoing now for ten years. This new tradition has brought them closer than they ever were before, brought them the rewards of gratitude from those they helped, brought them new experiences and taught them how to build, and allowed them to form bonds with people they never would have known. It truly seems like the small crew of close friends have in their ten years of service exemplified the volunteer spirit. Their story illustrates the impact of (and benefits of) helping to build homes in a city like New Orleans.

Sharon Purcel, who was a teacher and working mom and is now a volunteer and a tutor in Atlanta, said, “We got a lot more out of it than we even put in.”

In the early years, they helped work on Musicians’ Village, and there they met partner family Kewanda Baxter. Carolyn “Puddin'” Cox worked as a social worker working with geriatric clients and has since retired and become an actor. She also works as a mentor at the Holocaust Center and helps kids get into college.

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“They had pictures on stands by the house to see the family that you were helping to move in,” she said. “There was a picture of this family–this girl, didn’t look very old–and three kids from a single mom, so it struck a chord. It particularly hit me because I had just come off being a single parent for ten years.”

They made an effort to connect with Kewanda, and they have been friends ever since, being there as her children grew up, in good times and bad. Every time the Dirty Dozen are in town, they have dinner with her and her family–which now includes grandchildren.

“She’s just a fabulous, fabulous woman,” said Puddin’. “She is strong. I don’t know how she made it through all the stuff she did.”

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Their first impression upon returning to the city after the storm can be summed up in one word: sadness.

“We would see the dumpsters out in front of the homes, and the smell–the smell was horrible,” said Marilyn Storch, retired Director of Marketing and Communications for hospitals in Illinois. She now lives in Florida. “It was heartbreaking.”

“And going back to your community and hearing ‘Why rebuild it? Why rebuild New Orleans… why pay attention to it?'” Cheryl said. “There’s a reason to rebuild it. We got the word out.”

When they came to volunteer, however, the locals welcomed them. It was not uncommon for volunteers to be thanked when locals saw them in the neighborhood, and they were not only thanked for building. The presence of volunteers meant other industries were returning to serve them–hospitality, tourism, transportation, and more. Between 2006 and 2012, over a hundred thousand volunteers brought in over $300 million in economic impact to the city. This incredible number is impressive and visible over time, but in small ways, it became palpable even early on.

“I can remember the first year, the housekeeper in the hotel we were staying in was so thankful we were there because we enabled her to do her job,” said Marilyn. “We’ve stayed there every year [since] except one, when they were full.”

Others made grander gestures of gratitude. “When I was checking in at the airport, I brought my toolbelt,” Puddin’ said. “I told them about it, and [the airline] said ‘we won’t charge extra for your baggage.”

Though many of the Dirty Dozen had been friends at school and had kept in touch, forty to fifty years had passed, and the annual volunteer experience gave them a chance to reconnect and grow. It began the first time they saw each other again at the airport.

“I remember being at the airport the first year, and I saw a lot of us because we had coordinated our flights,” said Cheryl. “After not seeing each other for a long time, that stands out in my mind.”

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Since then, they have shared their lives and rejuvenated their friendships with their annual trip. Each year, they make t-shirts (or sometimes hats) and find new activities to attend, from the Algiers Bonfire to the Jingle Parade and more–events made possible because they come the same week every year. They have their favorite spots to eat (both Domilese’s and Brennan’s make the list), and they stay in touch throughout the year.

“It created bonds among many of us that we had not persevered with over the many years,” said Rachelle Parker, a retired public school principal from New Jersey who now works on environmental issues and children’s nutrition. “We have created a much more enduring, strong, big, broad, and deep series of bonds with us. The two different age groups have become deep close friends, which we would not have had happen in our lives. And it’s really supported us in times of weakness and problems as well as happiness. We love getting together for this one week a year. It’s so much fun.”

Puddin’ added, “It seems like we’re better. The friendships are so good, I can’t wait to get here. I feel more comfortable with this group than a lot of other groups I’m with. There’s such a history, and now we can talk about retirement and grandkids… When we first get in the hotel, it’s like we’re sisters.”

Many have gone back to support their local Habitat affiliates as well, taking new skills with them. They have brought parts of New Orleans’ culture across the country (Marilyn holds gumbo parties in New York!) and advocated for the city, and they have learned things they never would have expected.

“We have learned how to do physical things, building things, construction,” Rachelle said. “Some of us–me one off them–had never done much of anything, and I’ve learned how to nail, saw, cut, do things. Some of us do far bigger things, like siding, roofing, building. So it’s turned women into builders.”

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