There were two choices.
Leave New Orleans, possibly never to return.
Or be part of the Crescent City’s recovery.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Gerald and Penny Williams knew whichever path they chose would define their lives for years.
After many prayers – and tears – they made their choice. They were going to stay. They just didn’t know, at first, how their choice would end up defining the lives of others, too.
Gerald and Penny are both natives of New Orleans. Part of why they stayed is because they couldn’t dream of a life anywhere else but the place known for its hot food, cool jazz and one-of-a-kind culture. Over time, they saw a unique role they could serve.
“The best way that we could help New Orleans move forward was to provide a safe place for young people while their parents were rebuilding their lives after this tragic storm,” Gerald said.
In 2008, as new homes were being built and businesses were still slowly coming back, the Williamses launched Excite All Stars New Orleans, a nonprofit that teaches students about the arts, academics and athletics while developing leadership skills for long-term success.
At first, Excite focused on social services, helping children cope with the emotional distress that came from being surrounded by storm damage for so long.
Over the next several years, Excite would grow to serve more than 2,700 families with year-round programming.
Gerald says the students, ranging in age from kindergarten through high school, are “valuable and have value,” no matter the challenges they may face.
“There is greatness in every child who participates in Excite All Stars,” he said.
“Between our three programming areas, we can engage all kids to help them find and develop their passion,” Penny added.
A Team of Support
To fulfill its mission, Excite All Stars relies on a team of volunteers and sponsors. There are four full-time staff members and nearly 30 volunteer teachers and trainers.
“We have been very fortunate to have corporate partners, like Regions, that work with us to reach more students,” Gerald said. “We find the best people who can help, and we put them to work.”
Beyond financial support for Excite, Regions associates regularly teach financial literacy. They help students learn the essentials of money management by stressing the importance of building savings, spending wisely and understanding how credit works.
“The children in New Orleans are the future of New Orleans, and Excite All Stars is making a lasting impact in the lives of our future leaders,” said Graham Ralston, New Orleans Market Executive for Regions. “As financial professionals, one of the best ways Regions can serve others is through financial education. When we have a chance to work with students, we can help them learn from an early age how important it is to understand money and how to make smart financial decisions as they grow up.”
One Big Family
Alana Richardson started learning through Excite when she was only 6. Now, 11 years later, she is working with the organization to pour into students the confidence that mentors poured into her.
“Excite is like one big family,” Richardson said. “I know I have a group of people who support me and push me to be the best I can be.”
Richardson led a group of 9- and 10-year-olds during a recent summer camp – serving as a strong role model for Excite’s younger students.
“Alana really shared her gifts with the kids this summer. She helped develop their confidence to be great leaders,” Penny said.
As a student at Excite, Richardson participated in nearly all the programs offered and discovered her passion in athletics, specifically athletic training. When you don’t see Richardson on the court shooting hoops, you can expect to see her on the sidelines working with athletes in the sports medicine department.
Excite helped her define her life’s dream of being a trainer. She is headed to Louisiana State University after high school graduation to start preparing for her career.
“I’ve found joy in the fact that I’m helping change someone’s life,” Richardson said.
The Future is Bright
Gerald and Penny recently celebrated a decade of service to students in New Orleans. As they plan for another decade of Excite All Stars, the couple has one main goal in mind.
“Through additional programming in leadership and financial literacy, we want to equip students for healthy, active lifestyles,” Penny concluded.
“What sets Excite apart is that this is a program that serves the whole person,” Ralston added. “It’s not just about academics or athletics. It’s about showing students all they can be – and connecting them with mentors who can help them get where they want to go. It’s making a real difference – not only now, but for the future as well.”
In many ways, life in New Orleans is still defined by the hurricane. There’s pre-Katrina. And post-Katrina. The storm had an impact on everyone.
Gerald and Penny Williams are making an impact, too. And whenever they see a student succeed, they receive confirmation.
They made the right choice.