Hurricane Katrina Sparks New Life Purpose

by Allison Bernstein

“As a returning resident born and raised in New Orleans post hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it has been a struggle to rebuild our Historic Lower 9th Ward Community. I am truly grateful to Patti Vile and Volunteer Expeditions and the many wonderful volunteers she continues to bring every year to help rebuild our lives, homes, churches, gardens and neighborhoods in the City of New Orleans…Their work is priceless!”      

Warrenetta Banks, Volunteer Coordinator of the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development

Inspiring work comes from many places. One such place is the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), which inspired Patti Vile to start a small but powerful nonprofit organization.

In 2005, Patti was shocked by the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Once it was safe to travel there, she joined the URJ on a volunteer tour to see it for herself. “I looked at the destruction,” said Patti, “and I just couldn’t believe that it was the ruins of an American city right here in our own country.”  She returned from her trip inspired to take action, and immediately met with her rabbi to talk about the good work their Chicagoland synagogue, Am Shalom, could do there, too.  Her rabbi replied, “All right. Make it happen!”

And make it happen she did.

Although Patti didn’t know anything about travel planning, in March of 2007, she led a group of 19 volunteers to New Orleans to aid the relief effort. Even 18 months after Katrina, the scale of the destruction shocked the whole group. Katrina had destroyed thousands of homes, and thousands more needed to be completely gutted before they could be considered fit for habitation.

Patti returned from the six-day trip and knew that even though she was well into her 60s, she had found a new life’s work. “I felt that if I didn’t get involved, roll-up my sleeves, and show the way for other people to help, this job would never get done, because the government just wasn’t doing it,” Patti explained.

Inspired by what she had seen and done in New Orleans, she founded Volunteer Expeditions, an organization that plans and organizes volunteer tours for groups from all over the country to rebuild in New Orleans, tutor in Jamaica, and help the homeless in Chicago and Washington, D.C.

She handles every detail of  the itineraries for her trips, especially the specific work the volunteers will do. As of last August, six years after Hurricane Katrina, more than 10,000 families were still without homes. Patti works with local nonprofits, homeowners, and churches to identify homes that need help, and by the end of this year, she will have taken more than 1,200 volunteers to New Orleans to gut, prep, and paint standing homes, as well as build, insulate, and paint new ones. Volunteer Expeditions participants have helped build more than 80 homes and have spent hundreds of hours volunteering in the community (i.e., cleaning fields, sorting and distributing at a local food bank, serving meals at soup kitchens, organizing and tutoring in schools, and replanting bayou wetlands).

Patti returns to New Orleans every year, often with temple youth groups and their leaders as volunteers.  This year she will accompany a 200-member Baptist youth choir from Texas who will serve as volunteers.  “I am hopeful each time I travel to New Orleans,” Patti said. “I see a little more progress and recovery with every visit, and that gives me hope and inspires me to continue contributing to the healing process with my volunteers.”  Mentioning her own age (almost 70), she laughs. “Even though I was retired, and most of my friends were slowing down, I just kept moving straight forward with an energy, spirit and will to do more and to do better.”  Patti loves her work and the people she works with, but none of it would have happened without that first URJ trip to New Orleans.

Allison Bernstein is Director of Communications at Volunteer Expeditions.

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4 Responses to “Hurricane Katrina Sparks New Life Purpose”

  1. Larry Kaufman

    Far be it from me to denigrate the inspiration that the URJ provides to many of us, but I read two key messages into this story:
    1. The power of an individual who is meshugah badavar, fanatic about an issue to make great things happen
    2. The importance of a nurturing support system like the one Patti received from her congregation. Rabbi Lowenstein didn’t just tell her to make it happen, but put the congregation’s ongoing support behind her vision and efforts.

    So kol hakavod certainly to Patti, and to Rabbi Steve and Am Shalom, as well as to the role of the Union as the catalyst for this magnificent effort.

  2. avatar

    My name is David, and I work at the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development, and I also was a member of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps in New Orleans in 2008. I want to personally, and on behalf of the CSED, thank Patti, Volunteer Expeditions and all of the congregations and individuals like Am Shalom, who continue to come and to do amazing work here with us in the Lower 9th Ward. God bless you all, and keep doing the awesome work you are doing to make real and tangible change in the lives of others

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