Article
August 14, 2015

10 Years After Katrina, New Orleans Nonprofits Say 'Thank You'

MEGAN O'NEIL, FOR THE CHRONICLE
Christopher Cameron, head of HandsOn New Orleans, explains the layout of a community garden the volunteer-focused group started in the Lower Ninth Ward. Nonprofit leaders launched an appreciation campaign to thank donors, nonprofits, and volunteers for their help after Hurricane Katrina.
Kayla Marsh got her first taste of the Crescent City during a spring break trip in 2013. Then an undergraduate working in the community service office at Lock Haven University, she made arrangements for a group of friends to volunteer removing blight.

She was so taken with the culture-rich city, and the work being done, that she placed a call to her mother.

"I said, ‘I’m not coming home,’" Ms. Marsh recalled. "‘I’m dropping out of school and I’m staying down here.’"

Her mom steered her back to Pennsylvania to finish her degree after threatening to drain Ms. Marsh’s bank account. But in February of this year, just two months after graduating, the 24-year-old returned as an AmeriCorps worker with the volunteer-focused group HandsOn New Orleans.

Hers is a not-uncommon story among nonprofits and socially focused start-ups here. And it’s volunteers like Ms. Marsh, along with donors and civil society groups, that are the center of a new appreciation campaign from major New Orleans nonprofit leaders on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

The campaign is being promoted on social media channels under the hashtag #xoxonpo, and on the airwaves by Louisiana television and radio stations. It is the work of United Way of Southeast Louisiana, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, Baptist Community Ministries, and the Catholic Foundation Archdiocese of New Orleans. Together, they spent $70,000.

It includes a 30-second video message produced in partnership with local advertising agency Peter Mayer. "Since the storm, nonprofits and their supporters have worked tirelessly to turn things around," the segment says. "Thank you, all of you. Before, during, after, always."

Agreeing on a Strategy

The concept for the campaign came about earlier this year as planning for activities and events to mark a decade since the flooding of New Orleans kicked into high gear.

"I kind of sat back and said, you know, 10 years later we are better because the nonprofit community and their supporters from the very beginning stepped in to help," says Michael Williamson, chief executive of United Way of Southeast Louisiana.

Some nonprofit leaders strategized on how they might attract donations as part of the commemoration, but Mr. Williamson says that approach seemed inappropriate.

He decided that "it would make sense to do nothing short of or nothing more than thank everybody," he said.

The city is heading into the anniversary with trepidation. Some nonprofit leaders say they’re reluctant to celebrate gains when so many of the city’s residents are struggling. Others plan to avoid media coverage because they don’t want to see the highlight reel of graphic images that shocked the world after the city’s levees broke in 2005.

"I hope after August 29 I never hear the word ‘Katrina’ again," the head of one small New Orleans nonprofit told this reporter during a recent drive through some of the neighborhoods that suffered most from the storm and the flooding that followed.

‘Spectacular’ Response

Still, foundation executives and nonprofit staff members say they are proud of the role that the nonprofit sector has played in getting people back on their feet, and they welcome the appreciation campaign.

Albert Ruesga, chief executive of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, says that for years after the storm, the region saw waves of volunteers, often from churches and universities, come through to muck out neighborhoods and rebuild homes. That flow of people continues, albeit on a smaller scale, today.

"I feel like crying, thinking about that outpouring of generosity that continues to come, and it has come from all parts of the world," he says. "It’s been spectacular."

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.