After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in August 2005, the travel industry-based nonprofit organization Tourism Cares, together with 330 volunteers, headed there in March 2006 to help sift through the rubble and get the community back on its feet.
"We vowed at that time that we're not going to forget about New Orleans," said Bruce Beckham, Tourism Cares' executive director. "We need to remind the tourism industry that New Orleans still has not recovered."
Now, two years later, there's more work to be done, according to Beckham.
And the organization is returning to the Big Easy. On April 17, Tourism Cares is hosting its annual volunteer clean-up event at Louis Armstrong Park.
The park "has been pretty much closed since Katrina," said Beckham. "Not only is it significant in history but to the neighborhood."
Tourism Cares initiated the Gulf Coast Restoration Fund in 2006. It started selling green wristbands, with the profits from the sales going to nonprofit organizations in all of the Gulf Coast states. The wristbands are still available for purchase on the Tourism Cares Web site.
Louis Armstrong Park, adjacent to the French Quarter, is home to the Mahalia Jackson Center for the Performing Arts and the Municipal Auditorium.
It also is home to Congo Square, where, in the 18th and 19th centuries, African-Americans gathered to play music and dance, giving birth to jazz and other musical forms. The park is also the original site of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Volunteers will be repainting a park wall and fence and cleaning up the lagoons.
"We can't fix the whole thing in a day," Beckham said. "We give the parks department that jump-start that they need. We're as much an inspiration as we are a workforce for the local community."
Since starting the volunteer projects in 2003, that workforce, comprising 350 volunteers this April, is slowly gaining in prestige.
According to Beckham, Tourism Cares is seeing more travel executives sign up to help with the cleanup effort.
This year, industry association partnerships for the volunteer project jumped from four to 11, including new partnerships with the Travel Industry Association, ASTA, the Society of Incentive and Travel Executives, the National Business Travel Association and the Cruise Lines International Association.
A model for others
With increasing support and, consequently, funding, this year Tourism Cares is doling out $300,000 in grants worldwide for similar cleanup efforts.
Additionally, Beckham said that companies are increasingly approaching Tourism Cares to implement the Tourism Cares model within their own organizations.
"We created a template of giving back that other organizations, such as Ritz-Carlton, can do," said Beckham.
Ritz-Carlton, which has since formed its own program, had previously done three client volunteering events in conjunction with Tourism Cares.
As for expanding the volunteer projects to global destinations, Beckham said that Tourism Cares was in a growth pattern, and while it has hosted some smaller-scale international projects it hopes to do more globally in the coming years.
To contact reporter Michelle Baran, send e-mail to [email protected].