At 8 p.m. Jan. 20, MTV audiences will see a more real version of The Real World through the eyes of residents of south Louisiana. The cable network is shooting a live, international broadcast from Chalmette on the night of Barack Obama's presidential inauguration, where the St. Bernard Project, a nonprofit organization run by The Gambit's New Orleanians of the Year Zack Rosenburg and Liz McCartney, will complete renovations on one blighted dwelling over the course of a nonstop, 24-hour overnight rebuilding push.
The Chalmette house, home to parish native Robin Albers and her family, is the 168th structure gutted and restored by project volunteers — who now total more than 10,000 people from all 50 states — over the past two-and-a-half years.
"We're going to sprint through the finish line to finish up the family's home," Rosenburg says. "[The Albers] are emblematic of who our clients are: people who were stable, independent and autonomous before the storm who've had their lives turned upside down and, despite working 12- to 14-hour days, still aren't back (in their homes)."
"We hope that by exposing the MTV audience to the kinds of change their peers are affecting, and the enormous gains made by volunteerism, viewers across the country and around the world will be inspired to commit to powering change in their own communities," says MTV Senior Vice President Ian Rowe.
The renovation marathon, titled "24 Hour Rebuild the Dream" and presented by Entergy, American Airlines and the United Way (The Gambit is a local sponsor), begins at 10 p.m. Monday — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — and consists of four six-hour shifts. Rosenburg says the event's symbolism and topicality are manifold: "One, our clients have to live with this existence 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Doing a 24-hour build recognizes that. This is something that doesn't stop at the end of a St. Bernard Project workday. It goes on, and it goes on, and it goes on.
"Second, this is a nonpartisan event," he continues. "Merely because we have a new president doesn't mean that things will change overnight. We want to highlight that even with around-the-clock work, there's so much left to do. Third, these problems indeed are solvable. We can finish a house. We will have rebuilt this house in under three weeks."
Robin Albers' story, like many tales of displaced parish residents trying desperately to return, contains struggles that are hard to comprehend. Her mother's medical condition prevented an evacuation in 2005. Stranded on the roof with her mother, sister, brother and daughter, Albers helped to rescue three nearby families from the rising 14-foot floodwaters. After the storm, the family collected all its salvageable possessions in a U-Haul trailer; weeks later, in the frenzy surrounding Hurricane Rita, it was stolen.
When asked how an Obama administration might best serve Albers and the hundreds of other St. Bernard Project clients, Rosenburg doesn't hesitate. "A jobs program that creates fair-wage, benefit-protected labor that will get families home," he says. "We're hoping to do this. That's absolutely the way to do it. And, of course, we've got to make sure our levees work, or else this is all for naught.
"New Orleans and St. Bernard [residents] are willing to work. It's who they are; it's in their blood. People down here are workers. If people didn't have to accept a lick of help, they wouldn't have asked for it. So now is the time."
MTV's coverage of "24 Hour Rebuild the Dream" airs from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 20.