As thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees streamed into Dallas last September two couples decided to turn their 246-room Quality Inn hotel into a shelter for hundreds of evacuees.With the support of hundreds of friends, strangers, and private businesses across America, and an explosive, immediate response from a simple email message requesting assistance, the hotel owners set up what the local CBS affiliate described as “the best-organized relief organization in Dallas.”
It all started when Dave Peterson, one of the hotel owners, ran across some distraught guests preparing to leave the Quality Inn and check into a public hurricane shelter because some of the family members had run out of funds, and the group did not want to be separated.
“I told them to stop packing right now - that they weren’t going anywhere because no one would be turned away from our hotel for lack of funds,” Dave says.
He stepped away and placed a call to partner Chuck Sutherland, who immediately agreed with taking the bold course of action.
“I knew I could speak for my wife and our business partners when I said that,” Dave explained.
“Did I know how we’d pull it off? No, not a clue, but I’ve always been inspired by a quote I had heard at a Landmark Education seminar: ‘Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now’. And that’s what we did. We simply began.”
Dave and his wife, Anne, had first heard the quote, believed to be written by Goethe, when participating with Landmark Education, an international training and development company.
And upon hearing her husband’s plans, Anne immediately sprang into action and sent an email to some Landmark Education colleagues in Dallas. That e-mail was forwarded to additional people, who in turn sent it to others.
What resulted could have been lifted straight out of a Frank Capra movie: Almost immediately, e-mails and phone calls started coming in response to Anne’s email, and very soon thereafter, car after car and truck after truck pulled up to the Quality Inn.
Within hours, donations filled the three ballrooms of the hotel—the rooms were overflowing with clothing and household goods of all kinds, and still the contributions kept coming. Within days, scores of volunteers cleared out an abandoned warehouse behind the hotel and set up a “Katrina Assistance Store” where hurricane evacuees could browse and take whatever they needed at no charge.
But the donation of goods was only the beginning. People saw an opportunity to give of themselves and their time, and people started offering a wide array of resources and services to the hotel’s guests who had lost their homes, their jobs, and their sense of normal life.
As if forming a city within a city, people showed up to contribute: A doctor came to see patients for no charge, a pharmacist came to help with prescriptions donated by a local Walgreen’s, a hairstylist raised $3,000 and, upon arriving at the hotel to deliver the funds, decided to set up a makeshift salon - with the help of some local college beauty students, the impromptu crew provided more than 200 haircuts.
A church donated computers to use for job searches, communication with far-flung family and friends, and searches for lost loved ones. Still other individuals showed up simply to provide whatever was needed - whether that meant helping evacuees sort through the benefits application process online, or finding family members, or simply lending an ear and a hug to someone overwhelmed by what they’d just experienced and witnessed in devastated New Orleans.
When the hotel owners noticed the only real meal some people were eating was the free breakfast they offered, they pledged to provide three meals a day to all guests at no charge. Again, it was a massive outpouring of support from others that made it possible to follow through on that promise, says Dave: “The Lion’s Club that meets in the hotel spontaneously wrote a check to cover some of the meals. That act of generosity kicked off further donations by local churches, restaurants and other businesses. It was amazing.”
Only two days after the hurricane hit, the hotel organized and hosted an ad hoc job fair—more than 50 people landed permanent jobs, with many others finding temporary work to tide them over. Dozens of real estate professionals and landlords pitched in to find housing for the newly homeless, with still others putting together “new home” packages to distribute with all the essentials for setting up a household from scratch.
Many people have asked the Petersons and their partners, Chuck and Marilyn Sutherland, what possessed them to take on such a daunting project in the first place, and moreover, how they were able to offer such a diverse array of services and manage them so effectively.
Dave Peterson points to one of the basic distinctions they have all been exposed to in Landmark Education’s courses: commitment. “When you make a promise, when you commit to something, you’re creating a future that wouldn’t otherwise have happened,” says Dave. In Landmark, you get trained in powerfully taking actions that are an expression of your commitments. It used to be that I’d have a great idea, but then get stopped by not knowing how to do it, or having thoughts about not being big enough or prepared enough ... but in these programs I developed some muscle in having my word carry the day.” Anne agrees. She explains that all four hotel owners are graduates of the Self-Expression and Leadership Program, a Landmark course in which participants develop projects designed to contribute to their communities, and which has resulted in more than 30,000 such projects worldwide. “Little of this would have been possible without our Landmark training,” Anne says, “That training enabled us to be present in the moment to look for what was needed and to find a way to provide it. As you can imagine, there were thousands of moments where we easily could have been overwhelmed by the scope of this thing.”
Though it’s now been a few months since Hurricane Katrina blew through New Orleans and wreaked her havoc, the building of new lives, new homes, and new communities has only just begun. “It’s certainly not over,” Anne says, “but people are creating home where they are, celebrating the holidays with those who are near them. Their possessions and homes may be gone, but the human spirit is something that cannot be taken away.”
The Petersons and the Sutherlands are also touched by the generosity of the evacuees themselves. Not only did their New Orleans guests pitch in throughout their stay with everything from bussing tables to keeping the grounds, they are now organizing a February party at the hotel where the evacuees plan to cook New Orleans food and treat the hotel staff to some Louisiana-style hospitality. There have already been two wedding receptions at the Quality Inn where the newly formed community has gotten to toast the nuptials of some fellow Katrina survivors, and the hotel owners have been proud guests of honor.
“One of the things I’ve gotten very clear about is the fundamental desire people have to make a real difference in the world,” Anne concludes. “Witnessing hundreds of people dropping everything to step in and give of themselves to total strangers - and then to see the outpouring of generosity from those people in turn - was worth every difficult moment, every little inconvenience, every sleepless night of wondering how we’d pull this off. As this year comes to a close, Dave and I count this experience at the top of the list of our blessings.”