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Phoenix Rising 

click to enlarge PNOLA workers Rachel Massey (left), Gabe Caruso and Lashon Daley. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

As fundraisers go, it's wasn't black tie — a three-hour bowling event at Mid-City Lanes Rock 'N' Bowl, with donated pizza and subs, a small silent auction, T-shirts for sale ("I Bought the Shirt on My Back to Rebuild New Orleans") and the band Groovesect providing aural accompaniment. For the members of The Phoenix of New Orleans (PNOLA), this third-anniversary party was their biggest event ever.

  The Phoenix (motto: "Rebuilding More Than Just Houses") is one of the ad hoc groups, staffed mostly by young people, that stepped up to gut houses and help homeowners when government and insurance agencies couldn't or wouldn't. But now ­— almost four years after the failure of the levees and three years after PNOLA volunteers swung their first hammers ­— the organization is at a crossroads. With the immediate need for gutting and rebuilding less urgent than right after Katrina, PNOLA is growing into something new, making plans to serve its Mid-City neighborhood in ways the organization's founders never could have imagined in the frantic months after the storm.

  Paul Ikemire, a native of Sacramento, Calif., created PNOLA. After graduating from the University of California at San Diego, he arrived in New Orleans in 2005 to study surgery at Tulane's School of Medicine, shortly before Katrina hit. Ikemire evacuated to Houston and returned to his Mid-City house at Palmyra and Tonti streets weeks later, only to find houses in ruins, no electricity and no essential services. Ikemire, who had volunteered in Indonesia in the weeks following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, said he saw an opportunity to "build a new identity" for his now-destroyed neighborhood.

  Ikemire founded PNOLA in November. "We were one of the first organizations to come back to the city," he says. At first, it operated out of his house and ran on whatever FEMA money could be scraped up. Partnerships followed with other groups, including United Way of New Orleans, the Red Cross and Trinity Christian Communities. The following spring, PNOLA received a grant from AmeriCorps, and by June 2006, 18 AmeriCorps volunteers were in Mid-City, gutting damaged homes and performing homebuilding projects. At the time, many lived in Ikemire's house. "We had one guy in a tent in the backyard," he says. By summer 2007, PNOLA had moved into permanent headquarters on a hardscrabble stretch of South Broad Street near Criminal District Court.

  Since then, hundreds of college students and graduates have pitched in during short stays, but the AmeriCorps volunteers make up the backbone of the program, with a required commitment of 11 months' service to New Orleans in exchange for a small stipend, grocery assistance and health insurance.

  With New Orleans and Louisiana experiencing "brain drain" of some of its brightest natives who are relocating elsewhere for better jobs, the PNOLA workers are precisely the sort of motivated young people the city hopes to attract, like 26-year-old Lyle Castro.

  Castro, a native of Maryland, came to town to study physics at Tulane, working construction in his spare time. After the storm, he volunteered with PNOLA on the weekends and eventually took a year away from his studies to help rebuild full time. Rachel Massey, 23, grew up on the West Bank, where her family still lives, but went off to the University of Virginia for college. After Katrina struck, she came back and now works as the group's volunteer coordinator.

  Manny Augustine is one of the people helped by PNOLA. His family's house on South White Street needed to be gutted, but Augustine, who has arthritis in his knees, was unable to manage the job himself. He didn't ask for help after the storm, but when he went to FEMA later, he found himself out of luck. "They told me 'If you didn't need any assistance before, you don't need it now,'" he says. Without a FEMA trailer or rental assistance, he had to live in his destroyed home for two years, unsure what to do. A nun finally put him in touch with PNOLA, which spent four months rebuilding his home. It was completed in February 2008. "They did an excellent job," he says.

When the fundraiser was over, the bowl-a-thon had raised $7,300 for safety equipment, tools and the overhead on the Broad Street office. All counted it as a success, but in the three years since the first PNOLA hammer was swung, the overhead has grown as well. Ikemire estimates the current organizational budget at $12,000 per month, much of it funded by charitable partnerships and local and national donations. The largest single donation the group has ever received was $17,000. "We don't have any dedicated government or foundational funding," he says.

  Many of this crop of AmeriCorps volunteers are leaving in early summer; others are coming in. Castro isn't sure he'll stay in New Orleans after graduation — "I don't love it that much, but it'll always be a second home." Massey calls the city her "home base," but adds, "I want to live everywhere and do everything."

  Not that this is stopping Ikemire and his group. As the emergency need for rebuilding ebbs, he sees new roles for PNOLA in years to come. He'd like to help get a community health clinic established on South Broad Street, as well as a youth development program for the area's children and teenagers. He has one more year of medical school to complete, but his eye is on the future.

  "There's a lot of bad conditions here that can be fixed," Ikemire says of New Orleans and the state. "That's not a slam on Louisiana, but we've seen what a huge return we can have on a little investment. If you can do it in Louisiana, you can do it anywhere."

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