The 2005 fall semester had just begun when Marc Morial, C’80, the former mayor of New Orleans, traveled to Penn’s campus. One month earlier Hurricane Katrina had devastated his city, resulting in over 1,500 deaths and more than $100 billion in total damages. He had come with a request and a challenge: Don’t forget New Orleans.
Penn didn’t hesitate. Its Robert A. Fox Leadership Program committed to a 10-year “Covenant to Serve,” with the hope of forging and sustaining unique partnerships with a diverse array of nonprofit organizations, government and community leaders, and others in the city. It’s a story that can be told in numbers: 45 person-years of service through a combination of full-time alumni fellows, summer internships, and week-long service trips. But the numbers only tell a small part of the story. The real impact was on the ground, meeting those affected by the tragedy and building alliances for service.
“Penn’s commitment to New Orleans and our poorest and most vulnerable citizens is unique—and recognized by the leadership of New Orleans,” says Jim Kelly, CEO of Covenant House New Orleans, which helps homeless youth in the city. “It has been a gift from day one. As we continue to rebuild our lives and our community, we could not imagine the next five years without our effervescent Penn Fox Fellows.”
Martin O. Gutierrez, Division Director, Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, has a unique perspective after helping to mentor many of the Fox Fellows during their time in the city. “I must admit I never imagined that serving as a mentor would turn out to be such an enriching experience for me on the professional and personal level,” he says. “Each one of them has been amazing to work with. Getting to know them has been a blessing and a privilege.”
Judith Kim, C’09, was the student leader of the Fox Program’s work in New Orleans. “The program provided me the opportunity to spend three of my spring breaks, two of my summer vacations, and two years after graduating to serve and learn alongside those passionately committed to renewing New Orleans. I worked with organizations that provided short-term emergency assistance to families returning after Katrina and created a new program that operates a restaurant that employs high-risk young adults to ultimately assist them in seeking jobs in the food and services industry.”
Nellie Catzen, C'13, worked as a project coordinator at Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of New Orleans. Her main project was to create and implement a restructured Refugee Services program to bolster support for refugees, while better leveraging staff and volunteer resources. Gabrielle Alicino, C'13, coordinated NEWCITY Neighborhood Partnership, a coalition of over 100 community partners that facilitates investment and collaboration in the Tremé neighborhood, an area that has received over $4.5 billion in investments since Hurricane Katrina. She says, “I have immersed myself in the rich culture and history of New Orleans, with the unique distinction of being an outsider who is accepted by those whose roots run deeper than the live oaks that line St. Charles Avenue.”
Five 2015 graduates—Kristin Johnson, Manuela Gonzalez, Ciara Stein, Virginia Schieck, and Lili McKinley—are currently working at Covenant House, Providence Community Housing, Catholic Charities, and the YMCA, building on Penn’s legacy and the commitment and dedication of its students and alumni.