Hometown Heroes: The Dirty Dozen

How a group of former sorority sisters found peace, purpose, and carpentry skills in New Orleans.

from Reader's Digest | June 2011

“Nobody ever told me I was doing a great job before,” says Baxter. “When I feel like I’m not doing so well, I call or write them. They’re my friends, and they’re my strength. They tell me: Take a deep breath, take a bath.”

Hurricane Katrina actually presented a kind of meteorological bookend for some of the former Sigma Delta Tau sisters. Forty years earlier, they had arrived in New Orleans as freshmen at H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College (then the women’s school at Tulane University), just as Hurricane Betsy ripped through the city, earning the nickname Billion Dollar Betsy for the amount of damage left in her wake. They slept in dorms with no electricity and helped clear Betsy’s detritus from the campus. Close friendships were formed in an era of bouffant hairdos and war protests; after college, there were occasional updates about marriages, children, divorces. But over the years, their lives and careers spread out across the four corners of the country: Sondra Daum Berman became a financial advisor in Florida; Marilyn Zwick Storch did marketing for hospitals in Illinois; Janis Dropkin Smythe produced commercial music in New York. In time, most of them lost touch with one another.

Until Katrina. Cheryl Josephs Zaccaro, a retired occupational therapist from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, hooked up with Habitat first. She slept in a trailer with other volunteers, building low-cost houses, a job for which she had no prior training. Zaccaro began e-mailing her sorority sisters, asking, “Is this something we want to do?” From Texas and Pennsylvania and Georgia, the answers came back: yes, yes, yes! Everyone had sent checks to the relief organizations, but it didn’t seem like enough.

Zaccaro returned to Habitat with her sisters ten months later — an act of extraordinary selflessness, since she’d just completed chemotherapy for breast cancer. “But I kept thinking, I get to go home,” she says, “while all these people were still homeless, still dealing with the mess.” And after hearing the story of Baxter and her children, the group determined to get involved in an even more personal way.

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