Interview with Patricia Vile, Founder and President of Volunteer Expeditions
Hurricane Katrina, one of the most destructive and costliest natural disasters in U.S. history, slammed into New Orleans on this day in 2005. Exactly seven years later Hurricane Isaac is pounding Louisiana with heavy winds and rain, reviving the nightmare of Katrina.
While much progress has been made—so far the rebuilt levees are holding—New Orleans is still struggling to recover. Help is still needed and help is still being given. As in 2005, much of it by Jewish volunteers like the ones whose experiences are captured in JWA’s online exhibit, “Katrina’s Jewish Voices.”
One organization involved in this effort is Volunteer Expeditions, helmed by the vibrant, openhearted Patricia Vile. The following interview makes clear how much she cares, how seriously she takes the value of Tikkum Olum.
Why did you start Volunteer Expeditions? I was at a stage of my life when didn’t have a job, and I thought I would actually retire. I went on a trip to New Orleans because Hurricane Katrina so upset me. The news coverage was so disastrous, and I thought: How could this happen in the United States? So, I went on a volunteer trip to New Orleans and the need was so great and so many people were affected in such a dramatic and terrifying way. I thought maybe I could do something to make the situation easier.
So I went back to my congregation—Am Shalom in Glencoe, IL, a reform congregation--and told my rabbi that there’s a real need for people to roll up their sleeves and do actual physical work, and he told me to organize a trip. Even though I had a long background in the corporate world, I had never done any trip organizing or planning other than for my family. I put together a trip for 19 people for five days.
We went to New Orleans in March 2007, and it was a disaster there. We had to wear those HAZMAT suits, the air was toxic, everything was toxic about it. And we really dismantled or gutted an an entire house in New Orleans. We brought out all the debris and put everything on the street.
We touched the lives of the people who lived in that house. We saw their calendar marked with the things they were going to do the week the storm hit. The table was still set. There was food in the refrigerator. We saw prom pictures and diplomas, and it broke our hearts. It came to be that even though I didn’t have a speaker or fancy hotel or a bus service, everyone came home profoundly motivated and moved by the experience and felt that they had done good work.
What challenges did you face at first and what have you learned from them since? I was very nervous about the responsibility at first. I wasn’t used to leading trips. There were potential dangers I needed to be aware of and protect people under my care. I didn’t know how to navigate this position and felt that people on both sides–the volunteers and the people who were helping–were vulnerable. New Orleans was in many ways wide open, and there was a lack of police protection, sewage, electricity, etc. I navigated it, but it was an enormous thing to think through.
What is your favorite part of each trip? It’s all people. My favorite part is the people. The people who volunteer and the people we work with. New Orleans is a fabulous city with culture, food, music, and history. But on the trips I go on, it’s all about the people.
What inspires you when you feel run-down? What inspires me is the call from a new potential volunteer. Someone who wants to give of their time and their self and feels this is important. And I respond to that. So even if I’m tired, when I speak to a new person with a desire to serve, I come right up.
Whats your favorite story from a trip? A group of young high school students, who come from suburban, lovely areas, taking shovels and hoes and clearing a field that’s been filled with debris for five years. And who knows what’s in there. They’re fearless, working together to get it completed. It’s not a real story, but it’s a touching experience, and it happens again and again. They paint a room, they fix a ceiling, they put a window together, they hang the sheet rock – it’s a beautiful moment because it’s a sense of accomplishment and “look what we can do.”
Have there been any unusual groups? They’ve all been unusual. I had one that was all seniors, one that was all women –that was a terrific group. I had a group of kids that sang the entire time. They loved to sing and they loved to sing Jewish songs. They sang from the minute we picked them up, and they drew both me and the bus driver into it, singing rounds. They were from Rodeph Sholom in New York City, and the Youth Director was instrumental in this because he was a pianist and his heart and passion was in the music. Not only did he transmit this with the kids singing, but we visited a Baptist church on a Sunday and they asked him to play Jewish songs. And there in this small Baptist church, where until that day all they had heard was Gospel music, the whole congregation was singing along with Jewish songs in Hebrew and English, and it was wonderful.
What does the work mean to you? The work is a process of interacting with people and families. The work is in itself finite – there’s a beginning and an end to painting a room. But if you paint a room in a house of someone who’s been waiting three to four years to move into that room, and you get to know that person, that is meaningful work. So even though the painting, sweeping, collecting, cleaning of the gardens–when you intermingle those small jobs with people you’re affecting, it affects your life.
How does your Jewish background influence what you’ve done? I really, truly believe in tikkun olam. As a reform Jew, as a practicing Jew, I believe that part of our mission is to repair the world. And we could repair it near our home, but to be in a place like New Orleans with so many broken pieces, to be able to knit together some of those into a whole, and to create something whole and complete from what were just disparate parts is just very much my Jewish religion.
What do you hope to accomplish this coming year? I hope to continue the work in New Orleans. Even though it’s been seven years since Katrina, the need is just still so extreme. There are still so many people in poverty with so little hope that touching their lives and their touching ours is something I hope for. I also would very much like to get some mission groups to Jamaica because there’s this small but beautiful Jewish community there that reached out to us, and I’d like to reach out and touch them.
A little more about Patti...
Patti Vile can't get enough out of life. She's kept more than busy her entire life between working in health care with Blue Cross/Blue Shield and teaching, plus volunteering for many organizations. She has settled Soviet refugees in Chicago, served as the president of Art Encounter, volunteered with village agencies in Uganda and El Salvador, is on the Board of Directors for the Chicago Geographic Society, and coordinates Jewish/Muslim interfaith activities for several local congregations. At 70 years old, Patti loves spending time with her three children, her seven grandchildren, and her two dogs.