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Agent of Change

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HandsOn New Orleans connects volunteers with nonprofits in need_mg_7299email300dpiAfter the levees failed in 2005, people from across the country arrived in New Orleans to volunteer. How could they find a way to help the city? HandsOn New Orleans was created to match volunteers, both visitors and locals, with the people and organizations that needed them. Today the nonprofit group continues to be a clearinghouse for volunteer opportunities. It also offers resources like training, housing for out-of-town volunteers and a “lending library” of tools. Kertrina Watson Lewis, the group’s executive director, talked to New Orleans Living about her organization’s efforts to promote volunteerism throughout the New Orleans area.

What is the mission of HandsOn New Orleans?

We endeavor to engage individuals in meaningful service opportunities. If a nonprofit has a need, we connect volunteers to that need.

How has your work changed since Katrina?

We’ve evolved from a disaster response project to a volunteer action center. We now help to meet critical community needs. Those are needs related not only to Katrina recovery but also meeting the needs of the homeless and hungry, visiting the elderly at a senior center or helping rebuild playgrounds and parks.

How do you make sure that a volunteer project is successful?

As opposed to just telling the volunteers, for example, paint a wall, we give them instructions on how to paint a wall; we provide orientation, specific instructions and guidance. And we provide them with praise along the way and let them know how much of an impact their service has had on the community.

Are volunteers still coming to New Orleans?

There is still interest from outsiders. We call them “voluntourists.” We have individuals. There are people who come down just to vacation, but during their vacation they volunteer. We also have corporate groups. We had 400 individuals from Olive Garden come down about three weeks ago for a general managers conference. Even though they were here for just a couple of days, they wanted to give back to New Orleans. They made a visible difference at Nelson Charter school within about three to four hours.

Do you also see many locals volunteering?

Yes, and we make an extra push for locals so that they become more involved in helping their own city. One thing that will help with that is a program called Give a Day, Get a Disney Day. Next year from January 1 through December 31, if you engage in a day of service through HandsOn, then you get a free day’s admission to Disneyland or DisneyWorld.

What kind of volunteer projects attract locals?

A number of church groups participate in feeding the hungry. There are also some schools that like to do that. There are local groups that like to help with planting gardens in the community.

Is it harder to find local volunteers?

We try to make sure that the volunteer opportunities are flexible. We understand that there are individuals who can volunteer during the weekday and during the day who, for example, may be retired. But then there are other individuals who want to give back but can only offer time on the weekends or in the evenings. So we make sure that our opportunities are flexible enough so that everybody can participate.

On November 13, HandsOn New Orleans hosts its second annual Principal for a Day event. What happens on this day?

In public schools throughout the greater New Orleans area, business and civic leaders shadow principals, whether it’s making morning announcements or participating in parent-teacher conferences. Some of them even sit in on classes.

What do the business leaders learn from the experience?

We often see in the news the negative sides of public education, but they get an opportunity to see firsthand both the challenges and the achievements of public schools.

Has this led to partnerships between the schools and the business leaders?

Certainly. One of our success stories is Mignhon Tourne, the CEO at ASI Credit Union, who was a principal for a day at Frederick Douglas High School. One of the school’s needs was pencils. In order to get the pencils, they were going to sell popcorn, but they needed a popcorn machine. So ASI donated a popcorn machine. Forming these community and school partnerships helps all around. The business or civic leader gets an opportunity to see the wonderful things going on in public schools. The public school principals get an opportunity to have access to an audience that otherwise they wouldn’t have access to. There are also opportunities for mentoring and tutoring.

What do the kids learn from the experience?

The kids get to see these powerful individuals in their classroom taking the time to be with them for a day. They get to see those role models up front and in person.

To learn more about HandsOn New Orleans and discover volunteer opportunities in New Orleans, visit www.handsonneworleans.org.