SBP (St. Bernard Project): Angels Among Us

Columbia native James Grate has spent the past 77 years doing for others. He has made it his mission to let friends and family know that they are always welcome in his home. It is truly a sanctuary for loved ones to come and heal or just a special destination for eight-year-old triplets  – Jada, Jonathan and Justin – to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon. As they were the day I conducted this interview. He is truly a guardian angel.

James and his wife, Pat, counted their blessings last fall after experiencing the devastating October 2015 flooding. Their family members were safe. And, despite significant damage to their home of 30 years, they were able to continue living in it. This was important since Pat’s mom, Earthaline, who suffers from dementia lives with them. She is at her best when in familiar surroundings. Displacement would be difficult for her.

Their sanctuary, however, would not be open to others until it could be restored – and this would take some time. First more than 50,000 gallons of water had to be pumped out from under their home. Then they would need a new roof, mold remediation, drywall and ceiling work, and new insulation.

The good news is that the Grates had homeowners insurance. The bad news is that like most Columbians they did not have flood insurance. Their limited coverage would only pay for a small portion of the expensive repairs required. They needed to find another rebuilding option.

James turned SBP formerly known as the St. Bernard Project. Zack Rosenburg and Liz McCartney founded this organization in March 2006 following their volunteer experience in St. Bernard Parish after Hurricane Katrina. Over the past ten years SBP has rebuilt homes for more than 1,050 families with the help of nearly 100,000 volunteers in New Orleans; Joplin, MO; Staten Island, NY; Rockaway, NY; Monmouth & Ocean Counties, NJ; San Marcos, TX and now in Columbia.

Locally, SBP is working closely with several Columbia-based and statewide partners including the United Way, as well as government officials to advise and sustain the long-term recovery of South Carolina. Noteworthy is that the organization is focused on shortening the time between disaster and full recovery.

Early this year SBP established a full-time operation in Columbia, working with clients and assessing damage statewide. Through friends James heard about the organization and the work they were doing. While he was intrigued, he was extremely uncomfortable about asking for SBP’s help.

James has spent his entire life providing for his family and helping others. With seven children he often worked 16-hour days. He always persevered. He graduated from college after 18 years of study and then celebrated a long and diverse career. He was the first African-American to manage a major hotel in the Midwest. He also held positions at the Ohio Bar Association and Blue Cross Blue Shield.

As you would imagine, James is extremely proud and committed to his independence. Yet he knew that rebuilding his sanctuary was a priority. On a fixed income this would be difficult. After much reflection he stepped out of his comfort zone and wrote a letter to SBP describing his situation. This action has changed his life.

SBP immediately contacted James and set up an interview. This was a good first step for James since he still wasn’t convinced that he would accept help. “I wanted to meet these folks in person and understand the process. I needed to be comfortable,” shared James.

“When I met the three angels from SBP, I knew immediately that I had done the right thing. They were concerned about my family and me. And they asked lots of questions to see if I was eligible for their services. Probably the best part was that they did not make any promises at that time. They were just there to listen and understand.”

Fortunately, James did meet the client criteria and soon his sanctuary was on the road to recovery. Leah Cossette, SBP’s client services coordinator in Columbia spearheaded the project using the organization’s all-under-one-roof model that provides clients with one point of contact throughout the rebuild. “James and his wife Pat were amazing to work with. They have such a beautiful relationship! And they have gone above and beyond with their gratitude,” said Leah.

SBP’s model incorporates AmeriCorps members from all over the country, who serve as client case managers, volunteer coordinators, and site supervisors for 10-month terms. These angels are recent college graduates and mid-career professionals seeking a meaningful sabbatical; some are recent retirees who finally have the time to invest in their community.

James is extremely grateful to SBP for restoring his sanctuary. “I asked my SBP angels why they do the work they do. They explained that they just love to help people. You can actually see the love in their eyes. These angels have superior talents and are using them for the right things,” concluded James.

For more information about SBP please visit or call  (803) 281-2744.

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