Volunteer Profile: Habitat for Humanity Canada

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Ken Meinert arrived in New Orleans in September 2005. At the time, NOAHH had four remaining employees andthe city’s infrastructure had not returned to a capacity suitable for home construction. Ken served on the board of Habitat for Humanity Canada, and he had been asked to help expand capacity and survey the damage for affiliates across the Gulf Coast. He joined NOAHH’s leadership surveying St. Bernard Parish, where he met with Dave Dysart, who led emergency response in the parish shortly after the storm.

“I’ll never forget Jim Pate and I, sitting and listening to Dave Dysart tell us his plan for gutting houses and getting St. Bernard back on its feet and cleaned up,” Meinert said. “He was quite interested to hear that we had a lot of volunteers and not much for them to do yet.”

The volunteer response to Hurricane Katrina was tremendous, and Meinert and other Canadian volunteers were among the first to join Habitat affiliates along the Gulf Coast, even before many had the ability to start building houses again. Thus, NOAHH gutted 2,400 homes that had suffered severe flood damage in St. Bernard, clearing the way for their rehabilitation shortly after.

“Driving through Arabi and Chalmette right now, it’s fabulous,” Meinert said. “It’s back. It’s vibrant. You just know that wouldn’t happen without all the thousands of volunteers gutting those houses.”

Collectively, the Habitat for Humanity Canada volunteers that returned this November have spent 148 weeks volunteering in the New Orleans area. Overall, Canadian volunteers (through Habitat for Humanity Canada and otherwise) make up about 1% of NOAHH’s volunteers over the last ten years, but the hours they have put in amounts to significantly more. The group that came out to Wilson Street in New Orleans East this year has a long history together, having volunteered in Thibodeaux together in 2006, then New Orleans later in 2006 and 2008, and in Haiti after the earthquakes there. They remain in touch between builds, and their return trips have only strengthened their friendships.

“We met one guy on a roof,” explained Meinert. “Stu was working with us on Law Street during the Carter Project. He was assigned to our team, and he’s from Florida. He’s been with us ever since.”

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“The opportunity to physically leave something is worth something,” said Dan Borowec, from southern Ontario, whose first volunteer experience on the Gulf Coast was in 2006. He volunteered twice in 2006, and his first impression of the city was simply, “Where do you start?”

The volunteer response also overwhelmed him. “The appearance of community, and everybody doing something [to help out].”

“It was incredible to see the devastation with the markings and the quietness,” said Deb Wilson, referring to the famous emergency response marks on houses in the affected areas. “In the Lower Ninth, we saw where the levees breached when the barge came through. Houses were tipped all over, and cars were everywhere. It was emotional to see that kind of devastation.”

Wilson serves as Construction Manager with Habitat for Humanity of North Umberland. Though her affiliate doesn’t use quite as many hurricane clips, the work is very similar. Her return visits have allowed her to see the city’s recovery in stages.

“When we went back to St. Bernard in 2008,” she said, “It was still a lot of houses needing to be demolished, a lot of open space and empty pads. But the buildings were coming up. Big boxes like Walmart and the malls were still closed, so it was dark going through there. This year, we went out there again. All the houses are there now. Everything is open. You’d never know almost.”

“It seems much friendlier to me,” said Meinert. “It’s nice to see that, because for so many years, it was quiet. There weren’t people around. It feels like it’s a livable, living city… It’s really about community building. We like to think the little bit of work we do does support a family and their objectives and goals. But it also supports a broader community, and it feels like this community is coming back in these neighborhoods, which is fantastic.”

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