Ever since Kaiser Permanente began looking for volunteers for its annual Gulf Coast Rebuilding Project, Jennifer Saenz, a bariatric care manager at Kaiser Permanente Orange County, Calif. has anxiously tossed her name into the hat.
“I can’t tell you how happy I was when I found out I was chosen this year,” Saenz said. “This trip will allow me do something unlike anything I’ve been able to do on this scale. It’s my time. It’s really my time and I’m so excited to get started.”
Since 2007, the Gulf Coast Rebuilding Project has become one of Kaiser Permanente’s signature national efforts to improve community health. For each project, more than 1,000 applications (as high as 1,316) are received from employees and physicians across Kaiser Permanente in hopes of participating in a week-long community service project — either in Mississippi or Louisiana — to support the communities most affected by Hurricane Katrina. Volunteers must use their accrued paid time off in order to participate.
“The hardest thing is to choose the best team from among the hundreds of Kaiser Permanente people who have a deep and abiding passion for community service,” said John Edmiston, Kaiser Permanente’s manager of community engagement for Community Benefit, Health Policy and Research. “Thankfully, since we have been operating this program for several years now, we’ve been able to select hundreds of amazing volunteers to participate.”
Beginning Sunday, Oct. 13, Saenz and 28 colleagues will spend six days building, sweating and hammering in east Biloxi, Miss. Their goal: To build a new training center for students of Biloxi’s Women in Construction, a program that has been training low-income women for careers in the construction trades since 2008.
“We were fortunate to have worked with this amazing organization last year and I can tell you that I am sincerely looking forward to this year’s trip,” said Edmiston. “This project will allow Kaiser Permanente to take part in something with lasting value and will benefit women around Biloxi for years to come.”
The current WinC training facility is outdated and doesn’t offer an open-space workshop, which has been difficult for students who must cut wood or do metal work indoors.
In the past year, approximately 65 percent of graduates of WinC have gained employment, which increases their earning power, and/or continued their education in a construction-related field.
One of those women is Holly Wilhelm, a single mother and full-time college student who graduated the program earlier this year and has been hired as a construction assistant at WinC. She will be working alongside Kaiser Permanente employees on the training-center project.
“To be quite honest with you, there was only one moment — and it was a very brief one — when I wondered about why I would want to get involved in construction, “ Wilhelm said. “But the moment I met the (WinC) team, I knew what I’d learn would be invaluable to me. Even if I didn’t end up in the field, it would help me with the skills and confidence that I could use in my own home. I don’t have to rely on anyone, or spend money on repairs in my own home, and as a single mother, that’s pretty amazing.”
“This kind of project will speak volumes to the women in the community — that there are opportunities in their neighborhood and that they are worth the investment because they truly are,” said Johnny Gonzalez, WinC project coordinator.