"It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life, that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself."
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
On Aug. 29, Hurricane Katrina forever changed the face of New Orleans and seriously altered the lives of many of the 1.5 million Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama residents and visitors who were forced to evacuate.
One of them was a Naples teenager named Andrew Freeman, who had arrived in the Big Easy just 48 hours before the Category 5 hurricane struck.
Ambivalent about disturbing weather reports — South Florida natives tended to think that way, pre-Katrina — the only thing on his mind was entering his freshman year at Tulane University.
Looking back, he admits he initially viewed the pending catastrophe as a personal affront, a major inconvenience.
"I had just finished moving into my dorm room. Everything was finally put away. I'd made up the bed and hooked up my computer," he says, "when the evaluation order came down. Orientation was canceled and we were all told to leave campus."
His mother, Susan Freeman, was on the scene. She and her husband Yale, a Naples criminal defense attorney, had helped their son get settled and shared his anxiety about the unexpected turn of events.
"He was really psyched to go to college," she says. "I think Andrew was feeling a little sorry for himself at that point."
Mom's right, he agrees.
"I went straight into victim mode," the Barron Collier High graduate recalls. "I thought my life was over, just because my college starting date got delayed. Little did I know."
As it turned out, Freeman would spend the next four months outside a classroom, on an odyssey that would result in the kind of education money can't buy. But it would take a week or two before the pieces fell into place.
After evacuating New Orleans with his parents, he remained safely holed up at a friend's apartment in Gainsville, where he scrambled and won acceptance to Washington University in St. Louis.
Freeman then went home to Naples before heading for Missouri. That's when television coverage of the nightmare unfolding in Louisiana and surrounding Gulf states galvanized him into action.
"It suddenly dawned on me," the slender 19-year-old says. "Here I was feeling sorry for myself and it hit me that I really didn't have any problems at all."
His mother remembers the moment.
"I said something like, 'Can you imagine being there?' and Andrew said something like, 'I'm thinking about it.'"
He then told them, "I want to help."
His epiphany can be summed up in one word: volunteerism.
Although introduced to community service at a young age by his parents, Freeman's efforts following the hurricane took him to a different place, geographically and intellectually.
Helping out at the Harry Chapin Food Bank — an organization near and dear to his dad's heart — or working with youth at Temple Shalom was familiar territory. So was serving food to the needy at St. Matthews House, tutoring underprivileged kids at Golden Gate United Methodist Church, assisting at area Special Olympics and helping build homes with Habitat for Humanity.
When those volunteer stints were completed, he'd always return to his comfortable, upper middle class home and be surrounded by people just like himself.
This time would be different, though. For one thing, volunteering to help victims of Hurricane Katrina wasn't a choice, he says. "I just knew I was going to do something."
The something, it turned out, would be riding shotgun on a 26-foot refrigerated truck being sent from Harry Chapin Food Bank headquarters in Southwest Florida — his father's favorite cause won out — to the organization's food bank in the Bay Area that services 13 counties between Mobile, Ala., to Biloxi, Miss. Both organizations are members of America's Second Harvest, the nation's food bank network.
Working as a truck driver's assistant was a first. So was trying to catch a few winks in a sleeping bag in a tent city just off the Biloxi River, amid the skeletons of buildings, casinos on broken barges and flooded roadways blocked by fallen trees. People as well as abandoned pets seemed shell-shocked. And every man, woman and child shared a common problem — hunger.
Thanks to a $1 million donation by Oprah Winfey, Freeman and his fellow volunteers distributed a record 3 million pounds of food in just 17 days.
"Knowing you are helping someone survive is a really great feeling," he says.
From his tent city temporary residence, Freeman went on to Mobile, where he continued to unload trucks, distribute food and help put together emergency kits for homeless families. There he shared a house with five men, a diverse group that didn't fit the familiar white-bread Naples mold.
"They were people that I would never have a reason to interact with, except for this," he says. "Actually, it was pretty cool exchanging ideas with them. I heard other viewpoints and learned about another way of life. It opened me up."
But too soon, the food bank experience ended and Tulane still wasn't ready to open. That's when Freeman heard about a program being run by the Union for Reform Judaism called Jacobs' Ladder. Help was desperately needed in Waveland, Miss., a town of 8,000 on the Gulf of Mexico, and in nearby Utica.
He had the time and the inclination and hopped a Greyhound.
The first volunteer on the scene — and considered an expert after his Harry Chapin Food Bank work — he helped organize a much-needed food distribution center. A tent village was constructed on a shopping center parking lot, equipped with portable toilets, temporary showers, even a tented bank and childcare center.
To try to give now-homeless residents some semblance of normalcy — not one habitable structure in Waveland was left following Katrina's wrath — volunteers even set up a tented "supermarket" and "cafe," where free food was available.
Freeman was clearly moved by the devastation. Upside-down cars lined roadways, pieces of people's lives were strew across the mud-encrusted landscape following an estimated 31-foot storm surge, 130 people were killed.
"Waveland and surrounding areas were so poverty-stricken to begin with," he says. "Even before the hurricane, residents didn't have enough food and were living below poverty level."
To east their pain, Freeman and other Jacobs' Ladder volunteers turned an abandoned shirt factory into their warehouse, again unloading truckloads of donated food and packing boxes of emergency rations.
"Volunteers came from all over the country. It was so cool because everyone wanted to be there and was focused on what had to be done," he says. "When that warehouse was empty, I had a bittersweet feeling."
In retrospect, the soon-to-be Tulane student (the college reopens mid-January) considers that missed semester to be a god-sent.
"Today, I'm a different person," he candidly admits. "Because of Katrina, I had my first real-life experience, learning things I could never have learned in school — not that I'm not excited to start college.
"Now I can't wait to become a part of New Orleans' rebirth," Freeman says. "This has got to be the most interesting time to be there and to be a Tulane student. It just can't wait to get involved."
Tulane is lucky to be getting him, adds John Morrill, director of development for the Harry Chapin Food Bank.
"For those who think young people today are indifferent about matters of social justice," he says, "I have two words: Andrew Freeman. He probably does not even know that he is one of my heroes."