Single Mother Rebuilds After Katrina, Finds Hope Through St. Bernard Project

About five years and a few days ago, New Orleans brought a few things to mind. Mardi Gras. Jazz music. Gumbo. And to Joycelyn Heintz, it was home. She was a single mother of two daughters, then 15 and 7. She had worked at a utility company for the past nine years, but had recently been laid off. She started working the night shift at Wal-Mart, going to school during the day for business management, and the family got by.

Then, on August 29, 2005, New Orleans changed forever.

"At 4 o'clock in the morning people started getting canned food and supplies. That's when we realized it was a category 5."

Heintz packed up some photos and clothes and took her girls to Kinder, La. The next day, the house on which she was about to put a down payment was under 14 feet of water, and the family had to move again for a time to Picayune, Miss.

"I couldn't go to school down there," she said. "But Wal-Mart let everyone go back to work no matter where they were."

Heintz wanted a temporary trailer from FEMA while she waited for her house to be habitable, but was denied assistance, as the recent attempt to purchase a home indicated that she was wealthier than she really was. Though she eventually received a temporary trailer from her pastor, things didn't get easier.

"I had to stretch the hose every day to get any kind of warm water for my children to shower," she said.

It was a rough time, and she was naturally worried about her future and that of her children. That's when she saw the St. Bernard Project on the news. Founded in March 2006, the St. Bernard Project aims to rebuild homes damaged from Hurricane Katrina, help others find new homes and provide mental health services for those still suffering from the trauma of the storm.

Shortly after Heintz returned to New Orleans, she saw dozens of young people recently out of high school or college volunteering with the St. Bernard Project as a part of AmeriCorps, a government program where individuals dedicate a year of their life to public service.

"I was very impressed with them giving their time off," she said. "That's when I connected with St. Bernard Project to see if I could get involved with the AmeriCorps program. I thought a lot about it because it's a stipend pay. But they had education vouchers to help me out with my schooling. That's when I decided to join AmeriCorps."

Her experiences have shown her that news from the Gulf is not all doom and gloom. She sees former residents returning to their homes, and those who came to help buying property. Though much needs to be done, the progress is undeniable.

"The community is coming back," she said. "It's coming back differently, because people have moved from other states, and some people have stuck here...It's opened up people's eyes -- not about what we can get, but what we can give -- how close we can be. It's bringing this community back stronger than before."

After two years working with AmeriCorps, Heintz joined the St. Bernard Project full-time and now manages the Center for Wellness and Mental Health in Chalmette. This accomplishment was even pointed out by President Obama in his speech from New Orleans on Sunday. (Read the president's full remarks or watch the video below.)

"It was an honor to be mentioned like that," she said. "I'm one of the names he chose, but we have so many people who stepped up to the plate down here. Without AmeriCorps and a lot of the nonprofits we wouldn't be where we are today."