BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - I was honored to be asked to speak at the five years since Katrina "Phenomenal People Gala." It was hosted by Bill Stallworth and his amazing "Hope Community Development Agency" who have put so many people back in their homes since Katrina.
But the night was about honoring all of the amazing volunteers who have done so much to help us recover. Before the event, it took me several days to write a speech about the incredible, selfless people who touched all of our lives after that devastating storm.
I was excited, ready to give a speech that would be easy to do because I was speaking from the heart about something I feel very strongly about. After all, I would know most of the people in the Live Hard Rock Theatre anyway and was sure I would feel very comfortable there.
But when Academy Award winning actor Morgan Freeman walked in, I must admit I got some serious butterflies! He and actor Ted Danson were in town promoting the "Oceana" project. Both actors are members of the conservation group that is now mapping the Gulf of Mexico floor looking for subsurface oil. Freeman came to show support for an event honoring the heroes of the storm and recovery.
When I began speaking, I didn't even look at the speech I spent so much time molding and tweaking. I just started speaking without looking down, and it all poured out. A sweet little lady told me afterwards how much she enjoyed my speech. I told her that I written down what I wanted to say, but I never really used my notes. I told her it was strange but felt good. She quickly exclaimed, "The Holy Spirit got a hold of you, that's all sweetheart!"
It never ceases to amaze me the beauty and grace of the people of South Mississippi. Bill Stallworth said it well.
He said, "There is nowhere in this world you will find more giving, kind, down to earth people than right here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast."
He said he feels honored to a be of such a community, as do I.
Below is the speech I wrote but didn't really use, but I mean every word of it. Thank you to all of the volunteers and all of victims of the storm who were thrust into a terrible situation and handled it with such class!
Many of you became heroes in your own right for the help and kindness you showed to one another whether it be sharing hot meals, warm beds and cold drinks or risking your life to save others. Meeting all of you has been one of the greatest joys of my career and life!
Phenomenal People Gala Speech, August 26th, 2010, Hard Rock Casino, Biloxi:
"Bill Stallworth and his Hope Community Development Agency of East Biloxi were among those nominated and honored as South Mississippi Heroes on WLOX News for all of their amazing work since August of 2005, work that is still going on today.
Right after Katrina, the news room was flooded with calls from desperate people needing so much help. The whole experience became very stressful, extremely overwhelming since many of us were also dealing with the devastation from Katrina in our own personal lives. But there were also very some different, surprising calls. There were calls about the amazing things people were doing for each other during and after the storm.
As a journalist this was an unbelievable opportunity to tell not one jaw dropping story, but many!
So, our news director Dave Vincent had the idea to let viewers write in and nominate their "South Mississippi Heroes," and then I had the privilege of highlighting one such hero each week. That was supposed to be for 12 months. It lasted more than 4 years!
Week after week, we never ran out of these heroic stories to tell. I got to spend much of my days reading stacks of heart warming, uplifting tales about lives touched and changed forever; often times by people they had never even met.
Like Howard O'Gwin, a very soft spoken, every day man who rescued 33 neighbors, 2 dogs, 3 cats and a canary with his little aluminum fishing boat during the height of the storm.
One elderly woman he saved, told me he kicked in her door just as she was laying down to die. As the water rose in her home her front door was blocked with debris, as she prayed for a peaceful death, she said a man she had never met before, swam under the murky water and moved the barrel that was blocking her exit. He busted down her door and in the kindest and calmest voice you can imagine he said, "Can I help you Ma'am?"
When I asked 80-year-old Betty Gillam to take me back to that moment, she told me, "It was like the hand of God came down to save me at the scariest moment of my life."
Was he just in the right place at the right time? Mr. O'Gwin would tell you it was divine intervention. He felt drawn to her little house for no apparent or logical reason.
It reminds me of that joke about faith:
There was an old man sitting on his porch watching the rain fall. Pretty soon the water was coming over the porch and into the house. The old man was still sitting there when a rescue boat came and the people on board said, "You can't stay here. You have to come with us." He replied, "No, God will save me." So the boat left. A little while later, the water was up to the second floor, and another rescue boat came and tried to get him to go, and again the old man said, "Nope, God will save me." So that boat left him, too. An hour later the water was up to the roof and a third rescue boat approached the old man, and tried to get him to go with them. Again he refused to leave stating, "God will save me." So the boat left, as well. Soon after, the man drowns and goes to heaven, and when he sees God he says, "I put all my faith in you, why didn't you save me?" He said, "Well I sent you three boats!!!"
To me the moral of that joke is that we are all potential tools for good deeds.
You never know when you're going to be put in such a situation. The man I told you about, Howard O'Gwin was one of those tools. He could have taken his family to safety but didn't. Instead, he put himself in extraordinary danger and got very beat up in the process. But he was able to save so many lives! Now he and others like him found themselves in this extreme situation that Katrina created and made very brave and bold last minute decisions to act.
But what about those who make a conscious decision to give up their homes and their jobs, leave everything they know to come to a place where they can serve others in need.
I'm talking about the faith based organizations that were literally the first to arrive after the storm even settled, before any governmental agency even before FEMA or the Red Cross.
I won't bore you with a whole bunch of numbers, but I will give you statistics on just one of the many out-of-state volunteer groups I've highlighted. In their 29 months here, the North Carolina Baptist men and their 30,000 volunteers rebuilt 700 homes. They worked an astounding 1.5 million man hours and served a half million meals.
But this isn't about numbers, it's about people, touching hearts and changing lives with their love and compassion. And this is just one of so many groups who came here and continue to give to the people of South Mississippi.
The astounding thing to me is that every single volunteer I have interviewed says the same thing about giving every single one says, "I get more out it than they do."
So it lead me to search for a reason as to why? Why would you work to pay bills and work to get ahead in life financially, but the work you do for free ends up being the most rewarding?
The great Indian spiritual guide, Deepak Chopra had that same question. He says, "Giving, taking, earning, stealing, squandering and hoarding are all human impulses, and we wouldn't be human without them. Yet on this list, only one item "giving" appears in the world's wisdom traditions. So he asks why is giving set apart?
After all, there's no mystery to why someone might want to earn, hoard, squander, or steal a million dollars. One way or another, most of our daily actions follow the principle of "more is better," whereas GIVING means having less. Do the great spiritual teachers want us to have less? Have they figured out instead, a higher way to give that will add increase to our lives?
Dr. Chopra found that if you ask people WHY they give, the readiest answers offer clues to the mystery. They'll say, "God wants me to," or "I feel better about myself" or "others need, I have, and I want to share." A hazy halo encircles these good-hearted answers, and if we bring it into focus, the following seems true: These enlightened few know that giving takes "YOU" out of yourself.
Ladies and Gentlemen, being in your company and others like you, I am humbled and motivated. Let us all take this opportunity as we honor such great people, to make a commitment to do more or give more in our lives. Whether it be a donation of time or money or just a smile to a stranger at the grocery store who may be suffering in silence as they fight their own battles in life.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta said it best. She said, "Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God's kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile. It is not the magnitude of our actions, but the amount of love that is put into them, that matters."
Tonight as I look around this room I am honored to be here to commend you, the "Phenomenal People" who have made our recovery possible and continue to improve the lives of those around you. You are an inspiration and gift to us all. Thank You!"