When I was asked to write this column last summer, the concept of deciding which organizations to highlight was overwhelming. Would I ever be able to select just one nonprofit each month out of the thousands doing such inspirational work in New Orleans? Surprisingly, it has been easy. Sometimes an organization contacts me, sometimes I reach out, but more often an idea falls in my lap when I’m not looking for it. That was definitely the case this month.

   Over a recent dinner, I shared with friend Carro Gardner how I’ve been so moved witnessing such passionate volunteerism through my new job. Gardner, always active in a variety of local organizations, opened up about the uplifting experience she’s enjoyed by volunteering with RHINO (Rebuilding Hope in New Orleans) and I knew I’d found my next column topic.

“For the past nearly 12 years, RHINO has given me the opportunity to meet, work with and thank thousands of people from around the country who have taken time off their work and lives to help us rebuild New Orleans,” says Gardner. “I am so proud of the quality program we run, providing not only needed work opportunities, but additionally welcoming these volunteers – from youth to adults – into our church family and to our amazing city.”

As we remember, following Hurricane Katrina the outpouring of compassion worldwide for our city was monumental. The staff and congregation of St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church answered the call by providing an affordable, meaningful and coordinated vehicle for concerned citizens to help rebuild New Orleans and restore hope throughout our community. For the first two years, the Uptown church education building was converted into a dormitory for visiting volunteer groups who gutted homes and staffed a food and clothing bank. In RHINO’s next phase, volunteers partnered with Habitat for Humanity and St. Bernard Project to rebuild the homes and lives of our community. Since 2005, RHINO has built an incredible 65 homes and has hosted more than 7,500 volunteers from over 30 states and three countries. RHINO is understandably proud that some volunteer groups have returned over 12 to 15 times over the past 10 years.

RHINO has expanded its original mission by organizing a variety of avenues for service. RHINO continues to offer volunteer opportunities for visiting groups serving the New Orleans area, but now focuses on uniquely tailoring experiences to meet their desires. Showcasing our warm Southern hospitality is an underlying RHINO mission, whether it’s through adding cultural experiences or dinners in homes of parishioners.

RHINO Ministry Director Caroline Cottingham witnesses first-hand how the lives of their parishioners and volunteers are enriched by emphasizing their belief that “by doing service, we are served.” In fact, RHINO now offers one to two trips a year for their own congregation members to give back to areas of need around the United States. Reverse RHINO gutted 24 homes in Baton Rouge in response to recent flooding. In addition, Camp RHINO is a summer camp engaging youth in service projects throughout the community and boasts attendance of over 300 campers annually. Students learn about urban ministry through work in community gardens, construction, summer programs for at-risk youth and day programs for developmentally disabled adults.

RHINO – through its growth from disaster response to a premier service project – is a perfect example of how volunteerism is making a difference in New Orleans for those being served and those serving.

A little more …

Help by hosting a volunteer group for dinner by emailing rhino@scapc.org. Learn more about RHINO by visiting RhinoNola.org.