Best of America

Hometown Heroes: The Dirty Dozen

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

The Dirty Dozen© 2011 Tamara ReynoldsFrom left: Cheryl Josephs Zaccaro, Carolyn Brown Cox, Debbie Brown Britt, Janis Dropkin Smythe, Marilyn Zwick Storch, Sondra Daum Berman, Judith Fagin, Carolyn Macow Leatherwood, Sharon Graber Purcel, Amy Goldenberger, Linda Lewis-Moors, Rachelle Galanti Parker (kneeling)
They are 12 middle-aged women whose hands are more accustomed to French manicures than heavy construction. But here they go again, gripping saws and spackling knives, power drills and nail guns. For the fifth year in a row, the women (and a growing group of supporters) have descended on New Orleans to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, helping to build houses and redress the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. Last December, the Dirty Dozen, as we’ll call them, were hard at work in the still-recovering Upper Ninth Ward, digging out the foundation for a sidewalk fronting a new house and climbing ladders to install soffits in the roof. They joked about measurements that sounded like a Starbucks order: “I need ten and five eighths half-vented,” someone shouted, and the response came back: “Nonfat?”

At the week’s end, the women exchanged their mud-splattered clothes for clean outfits and made their annual pilgrimage to meet with the family who live in the first house they had helped build: Kewanda Baxter, 35, and her three children, who had lost their home in the hurricane but who had, with amazing grace and strength, endured. Every year since Katrina, there has been a festive get-together with 20-year-old Dominique, 17-year-old Jeremy, 13-year-old Rodney, and their mother. Surrounded by his 12 guardian angels in a local restaurant that night, Rodney beamed. “It feels like my birthday,” he said.

Who are these women? They are middle-class mothers, wives, career women, and sorority sisters, now sixty-somethings who happened to see a photo and bio of the Baxters tacked to a board in a yard during their first stint with Habitat in 2006. “I was a single mom for ten years,” says Carolyn Brown Cox, a social worker and an actress in Seattle, remembering her emotional reaction. “I just felt like a kindred spirit to this woman. I know what it’s like to go to the grocery store and tell your kids that you can’t afford soda or candy.”

The family coordinator at Habitat arranged for Cox to speak with Kewanda Baxter, who didn’t quite know what to think. “I was kind of shocked. I told her, ‘You don’t have to send me any money, but my kids aren’t doing too well in school. It would help to have a computer.’ And then I just thought, If it happens, it happens.”

Baxter was stunned when a new PC was delivered. Then the women arranged tutoring to help with the children’s schooling, which had been disrupted in the aftermath of the storm. That was followed by the uniforms required by the kids’ new charter school. “Kewanda only asked for two sets of clothing for the kids,” says Cox. “She gets every drop out of every nickel.” But even more important than the financial aid was, and is, the emotional support.

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