The day Hurricane Katrina made landfall, I found myself being pulled into a meeting with one of the early responders: Walmart.
As a Red Cross employee, I had the opportunity to serve as a liaison between the Red Cross and Walmart and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I had it set in my mind that the conversation would probably focus on the disaster’s impact on the stores or the impact it was going to have on the bottom line. I could not have been more wrong.
Those in the room had one thing on their minds: helping their associates and their families. They asked questions like, “Is our Walmart family safe? Are we doing what we need to do to make sure they have access to their benefits and paychecks? How can we ensure they keep their jobs?” Seeing this play out in person, I jumped at the chance to join Walmart the following year, and just over 10 years later I’m now helping to lead global disaster response and preparedness initiatives for Walmart and the Walmart Foundation.
I remember it clearly. A fleet of Walmart trucks lined the highway, each filled with the supplies that would eventually stock “pop-up” stores that sprung up throughout New Orleans. Food and water, even hygiene products, were all made readily available to anyone who needed it. The experience of Katrina showed us that we had an incredible opportunity to draw on our strengths – our presence in thousands of communities; our associates’ compassion and expertise; the ability to source life-sustaining products such as food and water; our logistics and operations capabilities; our philanthropy; and our relationships with other community leaders – to help out our neighbors when they needed it most.
Fast forward 10 years and enter Flint, Michigan, Store Manager Beth Harris. Beth was calling about a rising issue that Flint was facing – a water crisis like no other – and she saw a way that we could lend a helping hand. With help from other companies, we set out to help make sure Flint’s kids had constant access to safe drinking water by committing millions of bottles of water to Flint’s school systems. Turns out the rest of the country felt the same way, as Flint schools were overwhelmed by similar donations. So much that they were forced to convert classrooms into makeshift storage rooms.
Given Walmart’s large logistics and warehousing network, we saw a new opportunity for us to assist. Over a period of months, we researched the workable options and found a partner in the state of Michigan to secure nearby storage warehouses and worked out a delivery system to individual schools. This allowed the schools to get kids back in their classrooms and learning. But we didn’t stop there.
Literally millions of plastic bottles were flowing into the community, so without a recycling program in place in Flint, all those bottles would soon convert into waste. So again, we worked with a coalition of partners to ensure all Flint schools had access to a recycling program that will help alleviate the burden of waste and engage a new generation of recyclers.
While the circumstances of every disaster are unique, we are uniquely positioned to meet the evolving needs of the communities impacted. It truly is wonderful that we are able to do so much, but it’s not just Walmart. We have countless partners that play just as an important a role in serving our communities when they need it most.
Ten years ago, I learned about Walmart’s culture. Today, I’m proud to be a part of it.
Learn more about how Walmart and the Walmart Foundation have given back by checking out our recently released 2016 giving report.