Cover Story

A day before APA's 2006 Annual Convention, University of Kentucky psychology professor Tom Zentall, PhD, took a break from being a tourist. That morning, instead of exploring the French Quarter or breakfasting on a beignet, he got on a bus with about 40 other convention attendees and went to help build houses. The group traveled straight into a T.V. newsreel of Hurricane Katrina's devastation. The conversation in the bus quieted as picturesque neighborhoods gave way to ghost towns: Clapboard houses with caved-in roofs, abandoned grocery stores, the debris of someone's entire life spilled onto a street.

The slow pace of rebuilding surprised Zentall.

"It's been about a year and there are still communities that aren't even here anymore," he said. "I think part of the tragedy here is the loss of community. I don't know any way to reestablish that other than by rebuilding houses."

For this reason, Zentall was pleased to learn that APA was sending two busloads of volunteers to help Habitat for Humanity recreate community in the devastated Ninth Ward. In one of the largest rebuilding efforts to date, Habitat is framing about 75 houses on eight acres of land formerly occupied by a school. The project, known as "Musicians' Village," will include a 5,000- to 8,000-square-foot music center, though people of any profession can apply to buy the new homes. Like all Habitat for Humanity houses, the ones at Musicians' Village are sold-not given away-to needy families and individuals at no profit, and they come with interest-free mortgages. The homes in the village are worth around $75,000 each, and mortgages run an average of $500 a month.

The program depends on volunteers to keep down costs and make these houses affordable for people who lost theirs to the storm, notes Jim Pate, executive director of New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity.

"The presence of the APA members at our upper Ninth Ward site meant so much to us," Pate said. "In addition to their physical work, the fact that they were helping to rebuild our brought hope and encouragement to a still emotionally fragile population."

Learning a new trade

On arriving at the site, the psychologists joined a mass of other volunteers-church groups, college fraternities, AmeriCorps members-and were enjoined by Pate to work safely, take breaks and drink plenty of water to stay hydrated in the 90-degree heat. They were not, however, told how to build houses, and several volunteers expressed concern about their lack of technical know-how. Even so, the APA volunteers gamely split up into several different crews-roofing, interiors, framing and latting-and set out to learn their new trade.

Six students from Connecticut College volunteered for the interior group. With buckets of white paint and roller brushes, they climbed up a ladder into a house that didn't yet have steps. "It's nice to have an indoor job," said Michelle Vickery, an undergraduate psychology major, while a Habitat staff member showed her how to apply an even coat of paint with long brush strokes.

Out in the sun, a trio of psychology professors received instruction from an AmeriCorps member on how to cut concrete-fiber siding to size. Getting a perfectly straight edge took Paul Hettich, PhD, and Paul Lloyd, PhD, several tries on scrap board, but they soon were cutting seams that won praise from their teammate Jane Swanson, PhD.

Their team passed the cut siding to another group that included APA volunteers who layered it on two adjacent houses. Shanti Pepper, a counseling psychology graduate student at Penn State, hung her first slat three times-she was having trouble measuring the overhang between the planks. "Reading a tape measure is not a course in grad school," Pepper noted.

The long haul

Despite the setbacks, Pepper and the other volunteers finished siding the two houses by the time the second shift of APA volunteers arrived at noon. They took care to stagger seams and minimize gaps between the slats and the windows-little imperfections that can allow water to leak in.

The day of work, even with roughly 80 APA volunteers helping out, represents only a tiny part of what needs to be done to restore the devastated neighborhood. In addition to Musician's Village, Habitat for Humanity plans to build 300 more homes in the Ninth Ward to replace some of those that were irreparably damaged by the hurricane. The hope is that affordable housing will bring residents back to the area, and businesses will follow.

The immensity of that undertaking didn't dampen the spirits of Lloyd, who will continue to help by providing pro bono consulting services to New Orleans businesses (see "Psychologists volunteer to help businesses rebuild").

"I'm glad that APA offered this opportunity for us to pitch in and help out," said Lloyd. "It counterbalances some of the devastation and destruction."