Original Source - The Clarion-Ledger
One of the common threads connecting the volunteers who helped the Gulf Coast build back after Hurricane Katrina: None of them wants to be singled out.
It took some persuading to get individuals to tell their stories. “Others did as much or more than I did,” they say.
We could highlight thousands of volunteer heroes but that would be impossible. Leaders of nonprofits helped us select two.
Here are their stories.
Mary Tell, Biloxi
Mary Tell of Biloxi, is a retired, former head of Volunteer Gulf Coast, part of the United Way South Mississippi. As an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer, Tell recently became certified as a Community Health adviser after witnessing the health problems on the Coast post-Katrina.
She can’t talk about it without laughing.
“Because it shows, in so many ways, what a day in the life of building back from Katrina was like,” she says.
She was at a conference in Atlanta and saw where a partner at Deloitte — one of the largest financial consulting firms in the world — was going to speak.
Tell went up to the man after the program and told him an executive from Deloitte had spent time volunteering during the monstrous clean-up phase following Hurricane Katrina.
“I was so impressed,” Tell said to him, “because he got in there and got dirty just like everybody else.”
He was that person.
Then he had a question: “Is the woman who was over us still down there? Her first name was Mary. She was with us when we worked during the day, and then at the nightly meetings.”
“Uh, yes. That was me,” she told him.
“We both got a kick out of that,” Tell says. “He had on a three-piece suit and was all cleaned up. I was in heels, stockings and a dress. The only time we’d seen each other was when we were exhausted and looking our worst.
“But nobody thought anything about how we looked. We just put our heads down and worked every day.”
Tell did so for numerous reasons, but there was one basic one: “I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. After that I was looking for a way to live my life that would make a difference. I felt like God had given me a second chance, and I was determined to make a difference.”
Prior to that she had owned a small restaurant in New Orleans. “I love to cook,” she says.
She also ran a warehouse for a company that made commercial and industrial air conditioners.
“It had predominantly been a man’s job,” she says, “but I figured that was the only way to earn a man’s salary.”
After her bout with cancer, Tell and her family moved to Mobile where she was on the start-up committee for a nonprofit that helped people on limited incomes obtain life-sustaining medication. She also started a support group for breast cancer survivors.
She and her family moved to Biloxi in 2000. She began volunteering with United Way South Mississippi and eventually became a staff member.
In 2007, she helped coordinate the Alternative Spring Break program. It provided college students with a unique volunteer experience during their week off.
“Our first year to have students come in and work was 2008, and I was immediately touched by their spirit,” she says. “They were young and strong and came here to make a difference. One of the young men said, ‘We didn’t give up our spring break, we took advantage of it.’ ”
Tell gave them a crash course about the history and culture of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and she emphasized one thing: “If you run across a homeowner whose house you might be working on, stop and talk to them, get to know them.
“Well, there was one house they were working on and it was being painted yellow. They couldn’t stand it. They thought the color looked horrible.
“But then they met the family who had been living there, and (the family members) were so excited that it was yellow. The students were like, ‘If they love it, we love it.’ That was definitely a learning experience for them.”
Tell says her work was extra rewarding during Katrina for a reason few probably know.
“When Katrina hit, a lot of nonprofit employees left town,” she says. “They didn’t want to be on the Coast, didn’t want to deal with it. A lot of them had lost their homes. But we needed volunteers. We needed people on the ground, trying to work through this unbelievable mess.”
“I love Miss Mary,” says Lindsay Glover, 27, of Fredericksburg, Virginia. She participated in the ASB program four times.
“She always made sure the students were OK and treated them like they were one of her own. She is one of those people with a huge heart and makes you realize the true importance of volunteering. She’s one of those people I’ll never forget.”
Wendy McDonald, Bay St. Louis
Wendy McDonald of Bay St. Louis came from Texas to volunteer after Katrina roared through the Gulf Coast. She is now executive director of Habitat for Humanity Waveland-Bay Area.
She was a dean at Cy-Fair College, near Houston, Texas, when Katrina struck her hometown of Bay St. Louis.
Her parents lived there. So did two of her children. All of them lost everything.
“I came back and began volunteering with Citizens In Action,” McDonald says. “I didn’t intend on staying long. But when the school called me in February after Katrina hit in August and wanted me to come back and build the fall class schedule, I had to ask myself, ‘Would you rather build a schedule or help people rebuild their houses?’
“I told the school I wouldn’t be coming back. My mom had told me a long time ago, ‘You can work for money or you can work for the greater good. But remember that if you work for the greater good you’ll never work for money.’ And I was making a nice salary at the college. But all of a sudden that didn’t matter anymore.
“I couldn’t get past all the dazed looks on people’s faces. They were constantly being hit with things. Their homes might have suffered $100,000 in damages, but their insurance was only going to pay $50,000. They were always asking, ‘What are we supposed to do?’ ”
She had friends who survived the storm on their roof, their clothes ripped off by 130 miles-per-hour winds and their arms shredded from holding on to the bark of a pine tree.
“Being around all of that changes your priorities,” she says.
McDonald graduated with a degree in business administration from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1974. She worked a while for the state welfare department. Later, she licensed daycares throughout Mississippi.
She helped start a daycare at a Methodist church on the Gulf Coast. She helped coordinate the start of Cy-Fair College — a part of Lone Star College — in Cypress, Texas.
With experience in a lot of areas — and in the area of Bay St. Louis — McDonald was an invaluable volunteer.
“I knew the people. I knew where to buy land on which to build homes. I knew which churches to put fliers in,” she says. “Being a local, there was a trust factor. I knew the mayors and supervisors along the Coast.”
One of the first jobs she volunteered for was driving people around.
“All my stuff was in Houston, so I wasn’t having to meet with insurance people or FEMA,” McDonald says. “I told people when I got there, ‘If anybody needs driving around, I’ve got a vehicle.’ So I’d drive the media and other people around.”
One of those people was Cindy Griffin, executive director of Habitat for Humanity Mississippi Capital Area.
“She offered me a job, but when she told me what it paid I said, ‘I made that much 30 years ago,’ ” McDonald says.
McDonald eventually gave in.
“It goes back to deciding what you want your life to be about,” she says. “I want mine to be about making a difference.”
She’s done that, Griffin says.
“Whatever Habitat for Humanity Waveland Bay Area has become — and it’s wonderful — it’s due to Wendy McDonald,” Griffin says.
“One thing that still amazes me was learning to build a budget,” McDonald says. “I asked Cindy, ‘So if you need $2 million for something and you don’t know where it’s coming from, what do you write down in that column? She told me, ‘Just put it down. The money comes. It’s a God thing.’
“And sure enough, I write it down, and it always comes. It never ceases to amaze me.”