Doris Voitier began her career as a math teacher and had served in the St. Bernard Parish public school system for more than 30 years when she was appointed Superintendent in August, 2004. One year later, when every building in St. Bernard Parish was damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, Voitier worked boldly and tirelessly, without help from the state or federal government, to reopen school doors to any student who might return home. With one borrowed computer, no working phones, and no emergency grant money, Voitier took out loans to hire disaster clean-up teams, secure portable classrooms, and rent trailers to house a skeletal teaching staff that agreed to work for reduced pay. Just weeks after the storm, Voitier reopened the first school to some 300 returning students, out of more than 8,000 who had been enrolled in parish schools before the disaster. By August 2007, just two years after the community succumbed to 15 feet of water, St. Bernard Parish will have reopened five school buildings to serve nearly 4,000 returning students. Voitier was honored with the 2007 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in recognition of her courageous fight to rebuild the St. Bernard Parish schools in the face of pervasive devastation and bureaucratic indifference.
Houston Mayor and Louisiana School Superintendent
Receive Profile in Courage Award
For Heroic Response to Hurricane Katrina
Boston MA, May 21, 2007 – Mayor Bill White of Houston, Texas, and Doris Voitier, Superintendent of Schools for St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, were presented the prestigious John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award today by Caroline Kennedy and Senator Edward M. Kennedy in recognition of their courageous and decisive leadership in addressing the human misery and ruin caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Mayor White, who offered refuge in Houston to displaced residents of Louisiana and Mississippi, and School Superintendent Voitier, who overcame federal bureaucracy to rebuild and reopen the public schools despite the complete destruction of the parish, were recognized at a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum for having exemplified the best in political leadership to meet the needs of communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
Past recipients of the award include President Gerald Ford, U.S. Representative John Murtha, former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora, Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko, U.S. Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, and former Governors Roy Barnes (GA) and David Beasley (SC). For more information about the Profile in Courage Award and past recipients, visit www.jfklibrary.org.
“Mayor Bill White and Doris Voitier demonstrated tremendous courage and leadership in the face of extraordinary odds and they serve as an inspiration to us all,” said Caroline Kennedy, President of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. “Mayor White’s quick actions in welcoming thousands of families displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita most certainly helped to save lives. Despite insurmountable odds, Doris Voitier rebuilt the schools of St. Bernard Parish, making sure the children of her community had a place to learn and grow when they returned home. They are both true profiles in courage.”
“Mayor Bill White and Superintendent Doris Voitier are extraordinary examples of courage and leadership,” said Senator Kennedy. “In the midst of the immense devastation and despair brought on by Hurricane Katrina, they rose to the challenge. They’re true profiles in courage, and I know that President Kennedy would be proud of them today.”
The John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award is presented annually to public servants who have made courageous decisions of conscience without regard for the personal or professional consequences. The award is named for President Kennedy’s 1957 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, which recounts the stories of eight U.S. senators who risked their careers, incurring the wrath of constituents or powerful interest groups, by taking principled stands for unpopular positions. This year marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize. The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation created the Profile in Courage Award™ in 1989 to honor President Kennedy’s commitment and contribution to public service. It is presented in May in celebration of President Kennedy’s May 29th birthday. The Profile in Courage Award is represented by a sterling-silver lantern symbolizing a beacon of hope. The lantern was designed by Edwin Schlossberg and crafted by Tiffany & Co.
As the Mayor of Houston, Texas, Bill White marshaled the resources and goodwill of his city to provide refuge and essential services to hundreds of thousands of people who fled the Gulf Coast after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. White led a community-wide effort that included diverting convention and event business to open the region's convention center and public facilities to tens of thousands of evacuees. When the federal emergency response faltered in the days and weeks following the crisis, White mobilized more than 100,000 Houstonians in the public, private, business and faith-based communities to help evacuees rebuild their lives with independence and dignity. Houston offered innovative programs to provide more than 100,000 evacuees with long-term housing, job placement services and public education. White, a former businessman and attorney who served as U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy from 1993-1995, risked substantial public criticism to meet the challenges of a sudden, massive influx of evacuees and the subsequent large, permanent increase in Houston's population. White is being recognized for his political courage in leading a compassionate and effective government response to the disaster.
Beginning her career as a math teacher, Doris Voitier had served in the St. Bernard Parish public school system for more than 30 years when she was appointed Superintendent in August, 2004. One year later, when every building in St. Bernard Parish was damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, Voitier worked boldly and tirelessly, without help from the state or federal government, to reopen school doors to any student who might return home. With one borrowed computer, no working phones, and no emergency grant money, Voitier took out loans to hire disaster clean-up teams, secure portable classrooms, and rent trailers to house a skeletal teaching staff that agreed to work for reduced pay. Just weeks after the storm, Voitier reopened the first school to some 300 returning students, out of more than 8,000 who had been enrolled in parish schools before the disaster. By August 2007, just two years after the community succumbed to 15 feet of water, St. Bernard Parish will have reopened five school buildings to serve nearly 4,000 returning students. Voitier is being honored for her courageous fight to rebuild the St. Bernard Parish schools in the face of pervasive devastation and bureaucratic indifference.
In selecting a recipient, the Profile in Courage Award Committee considers public servants who have demonstrated the kind of political courage described by John F. Kennedy in Profiles in Courage. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Kennedy wrote:
In whatever arena of life one may meet the challenge of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follows his conscience – the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow men – each man must decide for himself the course he will follow. The stories of past courage can define that ingredient – they can teach, they can offer hope, they can provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul.
Bill White and Doris Voitier were chosen as the recipients of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation’s prestigious award for political courage by a distinguished bipartisan committee of national, political, and community leaders. Al Hunt, Washington Executive Editor of Bloomberg News, chairs the 13-member Profile in Courage Award Committee. Committee members are Michael Beschloss, author and presidential historian; David Burke, former president of CBS News; U.S. Senator Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi); Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund; Antonia Hernandez, president and chief executive officer of the California Community Foundation; Elaine Jones, former director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund; Caroline Kennedy, president of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation; U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts); Paul G. Kirk, Jr., chairman of the board of directors of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation; John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University; U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine); and Patricia M. Wald, former judge of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. John Shattuck, chief executive officer of the Kennedy Library Foundation, staffs the Committee. Mr. Shattuck is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State and a former U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic.
Past recipients of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award are former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora; U.S. Representative John Murtha; Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko; United States Army Sergeant Joseph Darby; Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin; former Texas Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff; Afghan physician and human rights activist Dr. Sima Samar; former North Carolina State Representative Cindy Watson; former Oklahoma State Senator Paul Muegge; former Georgia Governor Roy Barnes; former South Carolina Governor David Beasley; former Georgia State Representative Dan Ponder, Jr.; United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan; former Palos Heights, Illinois, Mayor Dean Koldenhoven; former U.S. President Gerald Ford; former California State Senator Hilda Solis; U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona; U.S. Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin; Garfield County, Montana Attorney Nickolas Murnion; Circuit Court Judge of Montgomery County, Alabama Charles Price; former Calhoun County, Georgia School Superintendent Corkin Cherubini; former U.S. Congressman Michael Synar of Oklahoma; U.S. Congressman Henry Gonzalez of Texas; former New Jersey Governor James Florio; former Connecticut Governor Lowell Weicker, Jr.; former U.S. Congressman Charles Weltner of Georgia; and former U.S. Congressman Carl Elliott, Sr. of Alabama.
Special Profile in Courage Awards have been presented to the Irish Peacemakers, eight political leaders of Northern Ireland and the American chairman of the peace talks, in recognition of the extraordinary political courage they demonstrated in negotiating the historic Good Friday Peace Agreement and America’s public servants who demonstrated extraordinary courage and heroism in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. A Profile in Courage Award for Lifetime Achievement has also been presented to U.S. Congressman John Lewis of Georgia.
The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is a presidential library administered by the National Archives and Records Administration and supported, in part, by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, a non-profit organization. The Kennedy Presidential Library and the Kennedy Library Foundation seek to promote, through educational and community programs, a greater appreciation and understanding of American politics, history, and culture, the process of governing and the importance of public service. For more information about the Profile in Courage Award and the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, visit www.jfklibrary.org.
Caroline and Senator Kennedy, trustees of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and members of the selection committee, thank you for this incredible honor.
I am truly humbled and am in awe of my surroundings, of this audience, and of the fact that I would ever be honored along side such an outstanding humanitarian and statesman as Mayor Bill White of Houston.
Much has been said, written, televised, and scripted not only about the continued recovery of the St. Bernard Parish public schools, but about the recovery of the entire Gulf Coast area. There have been tales of the heroic, tales of the poor and suffering, tales of the forgotten and the abandoned. But there have also been stories of remarkable resilience, stories of courage, stories of hope, and stories of new and promising futures to come.
And that is our story - a simple one of ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances. When John Kennedy, during his presidential campaign, was asked by a young boy, “how did you become a war hero?” he replied, “it was involuntary; they sank my boat.” I have a similar reaction. Certainly, none of this was voluntary. Katrina and those engineers who were responsible for the faulty design of our levees destroyed my schools, drowned some of my neighbors, and devastated my entire community.
On August 29, 2005, every home, every school, every church and every business in our community suffered massive damage, and Katrina forever changed the lives of a very close-knit, hard working, middle class community of 68,000 people.
By now, you have heard many times over of the unbelievable wall of water that inundated St. Bernard Parish. The principal of Chalmette High School, Wayne Warner, and his assistant Cookie Mundt and I, along with our finance officer David Fernandez, our transportation director Kathy Gonzales and our former superintendent Frank Auderer will forever remember the frantic pace at which we had to prepare our shelter residents to move to the second floor of our building lest they drown in the flood waters.
We were forced by rising water to lead or carry over 250 people, many in wheelchairs, on oxygen, on ventilators, in need of dialysis, in various stages of dementia, to the second floor of our building…and then we watched in horror as we found ourselves surrounded by a lake, hearing cries for help all around us echoing from neighborhood roof tops. Thankfully, the water leveled at about 8 feet, but, by then, we had lost most of our provisions to the murky waters.
Then the boats came. I wish I could say it was the military or the guard or some such agency that had responded to our devastation, but it was our own people. Those hearty people of St. Bernard who live off the land began a rescue operation of unfathomable proportions. By nightfall, over 1200 people were in our school, as we pulled them in through second story windows after our neighbors’ boats docked at the tops of our covered walkways - 1200 people who were tired, hungry, and without dry clothes, all huddled together, all frightened and in a state of shock, each relying on a small band of educators to chart their course of survival. There were no riots; there were no disruptions; there were just hundreds of people just like you and the person sitting next to you who, in the blink of an eye, lost everything they had worked for over their entire lifetimes, who now looked to us for rescue. And we accepted that responsibility……. because that’s what school people do.
By late Wednesday, we marched over 1200 people through thigh-deep water about a mile and a half to a staging area on the Mississippi River levee, where we hoped state and federal government agencies would eventually come to our rescue with a means of evacuation. Our elderly and infirm had been boated to a makeshift medical site in an abandoned building where the water had receded earlier. And by Thursday, after escaping in a crew boat on the Mississippi River with 25 other people, I was en route to Baton Rouge to begin the process of rebuilding our school system.
And there, I believe, our story and our purpose here really begins. Within one week, in temporary offices in Baton Rouge, we were operating with a borrowed computer, preparing to issue a payroll, contacting employees through donated internet space, begging our legislators for immediate funding since our entire local tax base had been wiped out, trying to secure a community disaster loan and providing student academic and immunization records to parents who were scattered throughout the United States. Admittedly, we were in a state of professional and personal shock, but our focus remained clear – the reopening of the St. Bernard Parish Public Schools.
It soon became obvious that our first responders and essential parish personnel who had never left, and our returning oil and sugar refinery workers who were living in river barges and travel trailers wanted to bring their families home. My promise, my pledge to them was to provide educational services to the first child who returned to St. Bernard Parish. We had to open school or our families could not return – we had to open school or our community would die – we had to open school because that’s what school people do.
In September, we had begun discussions with FEMA about the cleaning and recovery of our buildings and the need for temporary housing for our school’s essential staff. We were, at first, comforted to know that the full resources of the most powerful nation in the world were at our disposal. But, as our discussions progressed, it became more than clear that we were on our own. Our government had failed us. Promises of portable classroom buildings within 90 days, secured through a “mission assignment” to the army corps of engineers, were broken. No housing for our teachers could be quickly secured by FEMA, and cleaning the muck, debris, and marsh remnants from our buildings was a task that would be ours.
So we forged ahead without help from the state or federal governments, locating our own portable classrooms and housing trailers, sealing deals with a hand-shake in parking lots of uninhabitable buildings, securing our own national disaster clean-up team, and relying on our own people – Bev Lawrason, my associate superintendent, who worked at my side; Ronnie Alonzo, who was my scavenger, my man in the field; Albert Carey, a trusted friend and architect who I called out of retirement; and our principals and administrators who salvaged the very few instructional materials that were undamaged on second-floor buildings. We had no patience for excuses, for bureaucracy, or for any obstacles that would delay our reopening.
And reopen we did. On November 14, 2005, just 11 weeks after the storm and only 3 and a half weeks after we took matters into our own hands, we welcomed 334 students in portable classroom trailers on the football field parking lot, and our teachers lived across the street in 240 square foot travel trailers on the grounds of an abandoned elementary school. By December we had doubled in enrollment. By January, we were the only normalcy for 1500 students, and we ended the school year with 2460. We cooked hot food with makeshift equipment, fed children in tents, ran after school programs until dark, and transported children home each day to sleep in tents, 8’ x 29’ travel trailers, concrete floors of houses with no electricity and sometimes in the backs of pick-up trucks. This past August we opened two sites to 3400 students, and next school year we will open five schools to a projected enrollment in excess of 4000. We have worked very hard and very long to honor our commitment of rebuilding with pride.
Ladies and gentlemen, I, alone stand before you to accept this award; but the educators of the St. Bernard Parish Public School System merit the significance of this moment.
In August, we will open the new school year with the theme, “the courage to lead.” As we rebuild our homes in St. Bernard, as we put our hard-earned dollars back into our community’s struggling businesses, as we rebuild state-of-the art true community learning centers with not only education but daycare, after school programs, meeting rooms for community groups, a school-based health care center for our children, a library that is accessible to our entire community, and a commitment from Exxon Mobil to assist us in this endeavor – we are proud to take the lead in rebuilding because we are determined that our community will not die; because we are determined that our community will again be the typical, vibrant, safe community in which to raise a family; and because St. Bernard is and will always be our home.
Prior to Katrina, we lived on streets where we knew our neighbors; we didn’t fear walking our community at night; we nurtured our flower gardens and worked at tree-lined boulevards; we made our houses home. Why? Because our intention was to live the good and decent lives known to small-town America and the spirit of our community was united in that endeavor.
Ms. Kennedy, Senator, your father and brother once pointed out to us that the Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word “crisis.” One brush stroke stands for danger, the other for opportunity. John Kennedy encouraged us all that we should, in a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.
Out of all adversity rises strength and determination, and if we have learned nothing else these past 20 months, it is that the only guarantee in life is change but that through change we can become, especially together, stronger and more determined. We were scattered to the corners of this nation through no fault of our own but we made it back home to begin again.
Before Katrina, home was, for many of us, a place where we parked our cars, a roof to keep out the rain, four walls to keep out the wind, and a floor to keep out the cold. But the people of St. Bernard Parish have redefined home for an entire nation because now we know that home is the warmth of loving hearts, lights from happy eyes, loyalty, comradeship and love…..where the children are… that is home.
To that end, we call upon congress and our national leadership:
1) to close the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet which is contributing to the destruction of our wetlands and jeopardizing the lives and safety of our people;
2) to rebuild our federal levees to withstand a Category 5 Hurricane;
3) to pass the recovery measures in the emergency spending bill to ensure adequate resources to reestablish our way of life; and
4) to put pressure on the insurance industry to settle fairly with our citizens and to offer them affordable insurance coverage.
So I gratefully accept this award today on behalf of all of those who have returned home; on behalf of each member of our school family who was determined and had the courage to be a part of leading the rebuilding effort in our community; on behalf of school people every where.
For you see, creating opportunity where there once was challenge – that’s what school people do.
Those in the audience who are members of our staff, please stand. Thank you to each of you. I accept this only on your behalf. To my family members who continue to worry about me and each of us, thank you for your prayers, your love and your understanding. Thank you, Mayor White, for accepting our friends and neighbors. And thank you to the members of the John. F. Kennedy Library Foundation Award Committee for recognizing our commitment to our home – the St. Bernard Parish public schools.
May god bless us all.
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Delivered by St. Bernard Parish School Superintendent Doris Voitier on receiving the 2007 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, May 21, 2007.
Today we honor two individuals who are impressive examples of courage, grace, and leadership. As we all know, a tragedy of unspeakable scope and impact decimated America’s Gulf Coast region in 2005. Hurricane Katrina was the deadliest storm to ever hit America, claiming over 1800 lives. It was also the costliest. The repairs and rebuilding are estimated to cost over $81 billion and that number will undoubtedly rise.
Those numbers alone are shocking, but they do not begin to reveal the vast devastation that the storm has inflicted on the families of Louisiana and Mississippi. In one cruel day, families were separated, homes were lost, schools and businesses swept away. Countless lives were disrupted, and many more were destroyed forever.
There are far too many examples of the inept and ineffective response by state and federal agencies. But there are other examples too – examples of courage, compassion and generosity that inspire us. The Coast Guard, National Guard, and other response teams rescued countless families. Medical and emergency teams jeopardized their own safety to save people’s lives.
It is in the spirit of these selfless and courageous men and women, that we recognize two public servants who made an extraordinary difference in the lives of so many deserving families during that tragic time.
Doris Voitier has been a compelling presence in her community for over twenty-five years. Her passion is her classroom, and she has worked brilliantly over the years to improve education for the children of St. Bernard Parish. She was Superintendent of Schools when Katrina came ashore.
She rode out the storm in Chalmette High School, having rushed there to save records and equipment as the storm approached. With a small group of staff and twelve hundred others, she waited for four days for the first rescue team to arrive.
She vowed that the children of St. Bernard would have classrooms waiting for them when they returned. Against all odds, with little or no help from officials and few resources, she persisted, and she succeeded.
Two months after the storm, the first school opened to welcome students back to St. Bernard. The healing began, and without the selfless dedication of Doris, it might not have been possible. Others would have found that the challenge was too overwhelming, but Doris knew that the schools were critical for the recovery of the community, and she never gave up. She’s an inspiration to us all.
At the same time, several hundred miles away, refugees from Katrina were arriving in Houston. Exhausted by their travel, they arrived in a strange city, with only no personal belongings except those they were able to carry. The people of Houston opened their city and their hearts to them. Under the leadership of Mayor Bill White, municipal resources were mobilized – cots were set up in the Astrodome. Food, clothing and medical care were provided. It wasn’t home but it was safe.
Mayor White didn’t stop with a warm welcome. He offered a way for families to move on to new lives. The city provided vouchers for housing, job fairs and a chance to start anew. Under his leadership, a coordinated effort began, and church, civic leaders, the regional business community, citizens and volunteers worked together to provide the help they needed.
As the months passed, Mayor White endured sharp attacks for his efforts from the naysayers. But he also earned the praise of countless civic leaders for the bold steps he took in one of the most innovative humanitarian efforts in the nation’s history. He also earned the deep gratitude of tens of thousands of refugees who had new lives and new hope.
The mayor is an excellent example of public service at its best. By his example he has demonstrated what America can be at her best. We are all deeply indebted to him.
I know that President Kennedy would have admired both of our honorees. He believed that public service was an essential part of our national life. As he once said, “Our problems are man-made – therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable – and we believe they can do it again.” Our honorees today affirm his belief in the power of visionary leaders – who are as big as they need to be when destiny calls.
I commend Doris Voitier and Bill White for all they accomplished in such a difficult moment, and when so many others faltered. They have worked miracles already, and I know that they will produce even more in the years ahead. Our nation is a better place because of them.
Delivered by Senator Edward M. Kennedy at the 2007 Profile in Courage Awards, May 21, 2007.