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Returning the Favor – The Kentucky Opelousas Connection

By: Carola Lillie Hartley

“The purpose of life is to contribute in some way to making things better.”Robert F. Kennedy.

Sixteen years ago, when Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana, I was away from the state, living in Kentucky. I will never forget that time, and the kindness of others who gave of themselves and helped me realize the true purpose of life.

When the Hurricane first came ashore, the news we got was New Orleans had survived with very little damage. And then it happened. The city was flooded, people were on rooftops trying to survive, and the rest is history. Seeing the event unfold in a live report I was watching on TV, I got chills, and began to cry. My thoughts immediately turned to my home state, and I wanted to help.

I worked for the Main Street organization in Nicholasville, KY at that time. So, I immediately contacted Roger Stapleton, who was the head of the Main Street Program in Kentucky, to ask if I could get the other Main Street managers to help, He agreed, and I contacted managers with the Main Street organizations in the state. They agreed to help, and what happened next was amazing.

With help of many people in Nicholasville, a relief effort was organized in the town and in Jessamine County. One of the local banks agreed to help, opening a special account so people could donate to the account named Kentucky Katrina Relief. The managers of the other Main Street communities had their own drives, with many sending supplies they collected to towns along the gulf coast, and others sent money they collected there as well.  Some towns sent supplies and money to us in Nicholasville to be shipped to the people in my hometown of Opelousas, and to the people of Moss Point, MS, who needed help.

Mike Mills, the manager of Main Street in Greensburg, KY sent out a request for help to the schools in Green County, population of about 10,000. The schools got involved, and in just three days Mills sent a load of all the requested items to us in Nicholasville. Springfield, KY also responded to our request. Nell Hayden who managed that town’s Main Street helped to bring together a broad coalition of partnerships including businesses, schools and churches that collected truckloads of bottled water, paper products, toys and clothing. Springfield collected enough items to send two tractor trailers full of needed supplies to Opelousas and to Moss Point.

In the first week and a half after the hurricane, the Kentucky group collected enough items from many towns in the state to fill eight semi-trucks. And the fund-raising effort that the Nicholasville bank helped to organize produced over $20,000.00, used to purchase supplies for the gulf coast, and especially Louisiana.

Working with Don Menard, president of the St. Landry Parish government, and Melanie Lee LeBeouf, the St. Landry Parish government Public Relations Officer, over $3,000.00 of Kentucky donated funds went to help kidney patients who required dialysis. About sixty of those patients from New Orleans were sent to Opelousas and St. Landry Parish. They needed money to purchase necessary medicines to keep up the treatments. Since the hospitals in the parish were full and could not handle the treatments, the money from the Kentucky Katrina Relief Fund was used for that purpose.

My group in Nicholasville wanted to do even more. We organized a team of local volunteers to provide hands-on assistance in Louisiana. My husband Tim and I, along with Walt Jourdan, Rob Garrison, Blake Garrison, Marisa FitzGerald Aull, Butch Mellott and other volunteers, left Nicholasville, KY on Sunday, September 18, 2005, and made the twelve-hour trip to Opelousas, one of the towns that had a center set up to help Katrina evacuees. A Disaster Relief Center for the St. Landry-Evangeline United Way, directed by my friend Sherl Picchioni, was located in the old Walmart building in town. Among her many duties, Sherl managed a group of Opelousas area volunteers who worked non-stop at the center. Spending a week in Opelousas, the Kentucky group was able to provide some relief to the local volunteers and additional help at that center. The team helped the displaced people get supplies, helped sort supplies, stock the tables and unload the trucks, some of those from Kentucky. We also delivered thousands of dollars sent from that state, dollars that were used to purchase food and other items needed by the center.

The Kentucky group gained so much by working with those beautiful people from the New Orleans area. They had lost everything, but they were so grateful and appreciated everything that was done to help them through such a rough time in their lives. We were a great team, people I will always remember who took time out from their own lives to come from Kentucky to Opelousas, Louisiana to help.

I share this story from sixteen years ago for a reason – Opelousas has a connection to the people of Kentucky. Last Saturday morning when I turned on the television, I saw what happened in Kentucky last Friday. I was horrified to see the beautiful small town of Mayfield, Kentucky. It was destroyed, and many other towns that I knew were severely damaged, with many lives lost. Now Kentucky needs our help, and maybe we can return the favor. There are many ways to do that through organizations set up to help those who lost everything. For those who can help, please visit the Team Western Kentucky Relief Fund at

Praying for all who are hurting today.  And God bless Kentucky!

Top Featured Photo:  Nicholasville, Kentucky volunteers Walt Jourdan, to the left, and Blake Garrison, right, unload supplies at the Disaster Relief Center for the St. Landry-Evangeline United Way in the old Walmart building in Opelousas in September of 2005. (Carola Lillie Hartley collection.)

Young volunteers from Greensburg, KY fill a trailer with much need items they collected to send to Louisiana to help the people from the New Orleans area who evacuated to Opelousas following devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.