Published: December 2008
At a televised Thanksgiving Day celebration held in Hollywood’s Kodak Auditorium and featuring celebrity entertainers, news anchor Anderson Cooper announced Liz McCartney ’94 as the winner of CNN’s 2008 Hero of the Year award. She was among 10 finalists chosen from 4,000 nominees. The competition, which honors “everyday people accomplishing extraordinary things in their communities and beyond,” concluded with McCartney’s getting the most votes among one million cast in an online election.
Community service is a recurrent theme in McCartney’s career. After graduating from Boston College, she earned a Master’s Degree in curriculum and instruction at George Washington University, taught in a middle school, and worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in the tiny African nation of Lesotho. In 2006, she was the executive director of an educational nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., when she and her boyfriend Zack Rosenburg traveled to Louisiana to help out in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. They arrived at St. Bernard Parish, a blue-collar community just southeast of New Orleans where virtually all 27,000 homes had been destroyed. Describing the situation she encountered, McCartney told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “I couldn’t believe that six months after the storm, you were still waiting in line for food, and there was no plan to get back into your house.”
The experience transformed McCartney and Rosenburg. “When we started to think about it, we realized we could go on with life as planned, or we could be, in a small way, part of the solution,” she said. They moved to the parish and created the nonprofit St. Bernard Project to rebuild homes for those lacking the means to do so on their own. McCartney and Rosenburg had no construction experience but did have skills in grant writing, advocacy, and nonprofit management. With private and corporate contributions and volunteer labor, they rebuilt homes quickly and inexpensively (a typical reconstruction costing about $12,000 and taking 12 weeks). To date, some 150 families have been resettled. “No one has been able to achieve anything close to their success,” says St. Bernard Parish Council member Mike Ginart. The project is now the largest organization of its kind, according to the Washington Post, with an annual budget of $2.7 million and as many as 500 volunteers per week.
McCartney will contribute all of the $125,000 award she received from CNN to the St. Bernard Project, and plans to continue her work for hurricane victims. “We’re here until we work ourselves out of a job,” she told CNN. “To the country and the world, I ask you to please join us.”