“The Right Thing to Do”—Washington Post Cites UCG’s Philanthropy Efforts

5 years after Katrina: Md. company helped some families back to their feet

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 25, 2010

When Lydia Thompson first met Nancy Becker five years ago at the D.C. Armory, she didn't believe a word Becker said.

Thompson, a New Orleans high school teacher, and her four children were among the 250 families that had sought shelter at the armory after Hurricane Katrina. In the preceding weeks, she had seen floodwaters obliterate her neighborhood, stood in line for hours to get a few gallons of gasoline and drinkable water, and searched for a hospital that could provide her father with dialysis. An uncle from Maryland finally rescued them after a car accident sidelined them in Mississippi. That day at the armory, Thompson, 37, had just gotten back after picking up her children from school to learn that she had missed the last bus of the day that was taking families apartment hunting.

Becker, a partner at United Communications Group, a business publisher now based in Gaithersburg, had gone to the armory with a couple of colleagues, looking to help families displaced by the storm. When she assured Thompson that they would get her back on her feet, Thompson wrote them off as well-meaning people who were unlikely to follow through. She had seen one family volunteer to take in a sick man and then take him back the next day because he was more than they could handle.

"I felt cheap and horrible," Thompson said. "A person who has a little pride in yourself doesn't want to be adopted like an animal. I said, 'He is not a dog. You can't just bring him back!' " The next day, Becker showed Thompson an apartment in Hyattsville and arranged to have a furniture store deliver beds the following day.

Thompson started to cry.

Over the next 10 months, UCG paid Thompson's rent and utilities. It also put up eight other families, some for a few months, some for a year. The firm, which publishes industry-targeted publications such as Funeral Service Insider, paid to fly one family, the Standers of St. Bernard Parish, up from Houston, where they had become stranded in the Astrodome. When members of a third family, the Penningtons, decided they didn't want to stay in Washington, UCG paid its car service $900 to take them to Kentucky, where they had relatives.

UCG had been involved in good works before, but nothing on this scale. Founded in 1977 by Bruce Levenson and Ed Peskowitz, the company has supported programs for at-risk boys, orphans in Afghanistan and collections for needy families. When Katrina hit, a team of about 10 employees led by Becker spent a few weeks working through government agencies and charities to get access to families displaced by the storm.

They focused on families that had dependents and no place to live other than a shelter. The head of the household could not be employed or have non-emergency benefits but had to be employable and pass a criminal background check. The company was not equipped to address the challenges faced by people who, for example, had been unemployed for years before the storm. "We're a business. We didn't want to become a social services agency for them," Becker said. The money came from a foundation funded by UCG and its 1,300 employees around the country. The company spent $80,000 on the entire effort.

"It was a big investment that we would do again, because it was the right thing to do," Becker said.

That tally does not include the nights and weekends that employees acted as caseworkers for individual families. They haggled with stores for furnishings, leaned on landlords for free or reduced rent, and appealed to employers for job interviews. When Thompson applied to work in Montgomery County public schools, Becker made calls to get her application moving through the bureaucracy. Today, Thompson teaches honors biology and honors physical science at Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville. She has also received two master's degrees and is pursuing a doctorate in education.

"I really thank God for being introduced" to Becker, Thompson said.

A mixed welcome
Washington took some getting used to. The Thompsons could never predict how people would react to them. Churches and synagogues donated to help pay for Christmas presents and other expenses. Strangers would see their Louisiana license plate and hand them supermarket gift cards. Or they would burst out crying. And people would ask if they knew voodoo, Creole or Lil Wayne. Occasionally, some people were unpleasant. One woman suggested that Thompson ought to be glad to be gone from New Orleans. "I know New Orleans is a poor place, but I got offended," Thompson said. "I had people telling me New Orleans was destroyed because it was a place of sin, that Katrina means cleansing."

Thompson was most frustrated by school officials who made assumptions about her children's academic abilities based on negative perceptions of New Orleans public schools.

During the first two years Thompson was in Washington, Becker would call every now and then to check up on her. Once, Becker learned that Thompson's oldest child, John, who was 12 at the time, was having a hard time adjusting at school. Becker knew of a middle school for at-risk boys, the Washington Jesuit Academy, that would also make Thompson's commute easier and worked on getting him admitted. John, now 17, recently graduated from high school and is starting college at the University of the District of Columbia.

Gradually, Becker called less often. "Life took on its different twists and turns, and it got more difficult to keep up," she said. UCG moved on to other philanthropic efforts. The Thompsons moved on with their lives.

Moving on
Thompson, her mother, three cousins and another family, the O'Neals, are the only UCG families that remain in Washington. The others that the company helped returned to Louisiana or moved to other states. Some couldn't find work or couldn't afford to live in the District. (A decent pot of gumbo costs $200 to make, Thompson said, 10 times the price at home.) Others didn't like the faster pace or having to drive more than 30 minutes to get somewhere.

Thompson still struggles with whether to stay. Before he died in 2008, her father, a minister for the Church of God and Christ, urged her not to go back. And she has visited enough times to know that it is not the same. She went back for the first time a few weeks after the storm to find her house overrun by mold and maggots. She laughs now as she looks at a photo of the refrigerator she had fought her ex-husband for, toppled over in the kitchen, half-submerged in brown water. With some reluctance, Thompson has put down roots. She and her mother, a teacher in Prince George's County, bought a house in Camp Springs in 2006. Thompson said they couldn't move now if they wanted to because the house is worth less than what they paid for it.

There are incentives to stay, too, especially for her children. Her second-oldest, David, 12, is about to enter middle school. Her two youngest, Faith, 8, and Joseph, 7, are in grade school. If they went back to New Orleans, she fears that they would have to grapple with a diminished public education system and untested charter schools.

Thompson has figured out one way to bring a little of New Orleans to Washington. She is working on an after-school program that will teach children about jazz. She hopes to draft her brothers, both working musicians in New Orleans, to help. There is a catch: If the program does well, it will be another reason to put off returning to New Orleans.