Employee Spotlight: How a New Orleans Native Found Her Calling in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

Oct 30, 2017

Each month, we shine a light on a Points of Light employee who is making a difference in their community. These stories of service highlight the individual volunteer efforts of our dedicated staff, what motivated them to get involved and how service has inspired them.

Jen Nash (left) and Kate Nichols (right) of Points of Light, with AbbVie intern Alex Porcayo at an AbbVie "Week of Possibilities" event.

Jen Nash joined the HandsOn Network team 11 years ago, after Hurricane Katrina devastated her home town of New Orleans. She started as part of the disaster response team, supporting brand new Points of Light affiliates HandsOn Gulf Coast and HandsOn New Orleans. Jen now serves as senior director of affiliate corporate engagement in our Atlanta office, leading a team of corporate activation managers working with Points of Light’s affiliate network and our corporate partners. While her role within the organization has changed, her commitment to volunteerism and New Orleans remains the same

We sat down with Jen to learn more about her experiences with disaster recovery work in the years that followed Hurricane Katrina, and what volunteering means to her.

1. What was your first volunteer experience?

My first volunteer experience was as a 12-year-old, volunteering at the nursery school I attended as a toddler. Through this experience I learned that although I did not want to be a teacher, I did feel passionately about supporting our youth and creating pathways for success.

2. What motivated you to join HandsOn Network?

As a native of New Orleans and working in the nonprofit sector, I was ʺcalledʺ to work on the rebuilding of my hometown when I saw the position opening at HandsOn Network’s disaster response team. Although I haven’t lived in New Orleans since 1992, it’s still the place where my parents and other family members live. And just the thought of not being able to ʺgo homeʺ again was pretty scary, so I know I needed to get involved in some capacity. It was one of the best career decisions I made.

3. What was the most rewarding part of your work in those first few years after Hurricane Katrina?

I served as the project manager between our new affiliates, HandsOn Gulf Coast and HandsOn New Orleans, and the national HandsOn Network office. There were so many rewarding moments in the two years I worked directly with those affiliates, but what stands out the most to me is the way the cities embraced volunteers from all over the world and how those volunteers have left a mark on New Orleans and Mississippi Gulf Coast. What amazes me most is how many of them, who never thought about living in that part of the United States, made the courageous decision to stay and start lives and families there. It speaks to how New Orleans and the Gulf Coast lives within you.

4. What role did volunteers play in helping the Gulf Coast recover after Hurricane Katrina?

I’ve had the first-hand experience of watching a volunteer movement in action. Much like many defining moments in U.S. history, it took the work and dedication of thousands of men, women and children to help rebuild the affected areas. The bulk of the accomplishments in the early stages were completed by volunteers. It was because of the hard work of the volunteers that the citizens of New Orleans and Mississippi were able to pick up the ball and keep rolling. What seemed like an insurmountable task on Aug. 29, 2005, became a testament of resiliency and tenacity in the decade that followed. Some may argue my opinion, but in many ways I feel like this tough lesson we were taught 12 years ago has made us much stronger overall. We all remember what we learned as a result of Hurricane Katrina and apply it on a regular basis.

5. Have you seen some of those “lessons learned” reflected in the response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria?

Absolutely! I recently returned from a trip to Houston where my client, Hilton, participated in a recovery project. The way Hilton associates have been revered in the Houston community speaks to the lessons we all learned 12 years ago. Hilton employees just kicked into gear immediately following the storm, with no questions asked, providing shelter and towels and linens for evacuees in the George R. Brown Convention Center. What they exhibited has been the spirit of America since Hurricane Katrina. Everyone realizes that it takes more than the government to help communities rebuild.

6. What advice do you have for individuals who are interested in supporting recovery efforts in the communities affected by this year’s catastrophic storms?

The best piece of advice I can give is “never forget.” Once the cameras are gone and the media stops covering the story, families are still in need and communities are still recovering. Responding to immediate, basic needs after a disaster is good, but responding to long-term recovery efforts is just as important. Working through an agency that provides assistance for families trying to rebuild their lives and homes is incredibly impactful.

7. Beyond your dedication to disaster response and recovery work, is there another cause that you are passionate about?

“I believe that children are our future!” I’ve been on the founding board for two Atlanta-based nonprofits serving youth and am currently on the advisory board of a STEM-themed nonprofit. I continue to mentor youth and make annual donations to youth organizations.

8. What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?

As a volunteer, I’ve learned that even at my age I can be a positive influence on my friends and family! Whenever one of my nieces, nephews or friends’ children are tasked with a volunteer assignment or challenge, the parents’ response is, “Call Jennifer. She can help.”

9. How has your personal experience with volunteer service influenced and/or affected your career?

Through my work in corporate activation and because of my exposure to corporate social responsibility platforms at so many companies, I really look carefully at a company’s culture through that lens. Often times my impression of a company’s culture and employee engagement is based on how that company values service and social responsibility.

10. What advice do you have for others who are looking for ways to get involved?

The greatest thing about Points of Light and the work we do is that even if you have no clue where to get started, we’ll get you started. Just sign up and show up!

Read more Points of Light employee spotlights, and find volunteer opportunities in your area using All For Good.

Amanda Knowles