Several years ago, I made the decision to leave the comfort of my home and travel to Louisville, Kentucky. At the time I was looking at different opportunities to coach college basketball, when suddenly, one of the largest hurricanes in US history made landfall. It was Hurricane Katrina and its trail of destruction and devastation had caught the attention of everyone in this country.
More than 15 million people were affected by this brutal storm that left nearly 80% of New Orleans under water. Many people were displaced from their homes and bused to cities around the US, who took them in and tried to help them get back on their feet. One such city was Louisville, KY.
I thought that since it was only a couple hours away from my hometown, I could go over and volunteer for a couple months and help provide some hope to people who had none. I ended up staying for 3 years. From 2005 to 2008 I was overwhelmed by thousands of people who were in need, the hundreds who had dropped everything to help them, and the individual stories of devastation, loss, and heartache.
In my time there I had worked with several individuals and families. Me and my crew were charged with helping people to regain identification, find housing, and get new jobs. Most importantly, we oversaw the assessment of each participant’s mental health.
I am certain that I could piece together a thousand-page novel about the stories that I heard from men, women, and children. The most memorable story came from a man named Kevin.
Kevin was born and raised in Kansas, but eventually moved to New Orleans. He claimed to have attended LSU, graduated and had become one of the most successful car salesmen in the city. “On a bad year I would bring in $300k,” I remember him boasting during our first meeting. The only problem was that Kevin had no proof of who he was.
When the hurricane hit, Kevin had neglected to listen to the many warnings that came from the news and his neighbors. He didn’t prepare for the pending storm which meant that he had not packed a bag, not gathered food and water, protected his valuables, or made any plans to evacuate at all. So when the storm made landfall and woke Kevin from his sleep, he was forced to leave his home without his wallet, cell phone, or any other useful tools or identification.
He remembered waking up to surging waters in his neighborhood and quickly jumping into his small speed boat to help rescue his neighbors. It was a short lived, but heroic effort for Kevin as his boat eventually succumbed to the 140 mile per hour winds that forced waves to crash upon his vessel.
Kevin had managed to save nearly 40 people from their flooded homes by getting them safely to a nearby school’s rooftop, as the nearly 30-foot waters engulfed his community. He and his neighbors were eventually rescued and provided services which included the option to relocate. Kevin looked at his options and with no family, no way to prove his identity, and no resources he decided to make the move to Louisville. His hope was that he could receive services while researching ways to prove who he was and reclaim his small fortune and comfortable life.
Kevin had already lived in Louisville for a few months by the time we had met. By this time, he had become angry and embittered by a lack of progress. He was no closer to establishing who he claimed to be, nor regained any of his property or holdings. While he excepted the housing vouchers and food, he refused to receive assistance in finding a new job.
“I’m not going to work at no damn Walmart,” he would often yell. And to a point, I could understand the frustration of having your life ripped away from you. All you owned, your status, and community were all gone now.
After some time, Kevin fell into depression and began using drugs and alcohol to deal with his situation. This coupled with his refusal to work at a job that was “beneath him” led to him losing his housing voucher and he became homeless.
We worked with Kevin for nearly three years before we lost track of him, but I could not help but think of the many layered lessons that Kevin’s story presented to me then and continue to impress upon me today.
Lessons that teach us that we could lose everything in an instant. That we never really know a person’s story until they have shared it with us. That we should not let our pride keep us from starting over and moving forward. Lessons that shed light on where our identity should be found.
My heart ached for Kevin as he dealt with his life circumstances. Thankfully, upon reaching out to some of my friends and former coworkers from back then, I learned that Kevin has since worked consistently on his sobriety, maintained a job for more than three years, and has paid for his own housing without assistance. And they say that he even began attending a small church and volunteering at a Louisville soup kitchen.
Not all stories from the families that I worked with were so uplifting. But what I learned from Kevin’s story, and so many others, is that there is always hope. Hope is not a plan nor a strategy, but if nurtured carefully it can grow into some of the most spectacular human achievements in this world.
And in the right situation hope can inspire others to keep moving forward in their darkest times.