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Mississippi businesses receive national SBA awards

Mississippi business owners weren’t thinking about recognition or awards — let alone breakfast with the president of the U.S. — when they chipped in to help Mississippi Gulf Coast residents recover from Hurricane Katrina. But representatives from four Mississippi businesses were among 14 nationwide honored recently with the SBA 2006 American Spirit Award which included a trip to Washington and meeting President George W. Bush.

In the early days after the hurricane there was so much going on that the businesses in Mississippi who donated time, money, equipment and supplies to help hurricane victims got little attention in the media. But volunteer efforts and donations from four companies in Mississippi were recognized recently when they received the American Spirit Awards: Viking Range Corporation, Greenwood; Gulf Hills Hotel, Ocean Springs; KLLM Transport Services, Richland; and The Rogue & Good Company, LLC, Jackson.

SBA Administrator Hector V. Barreto, who announced his resignation in late April, said the awards were designed to honor American businessmen and businesswomen who, without hesitation, came to the immediate aid of those who were victimized by the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes.

“Through volunteerism and hard work, these individuals exemplified the American spirit by providing the goods, services, compassion and hope that these businesses and homeowners needed to survive the destruction and emotional aftermath of these storms,” Barreto said.

Below is a summary of the contributions of the four businesses.

The Rogue & Good Company, LLC

Luke Abney and Keith Kinkade, owners of The Rogue & Good Company, had purchased the store only three days before Hurricane Katrina hit. They immediately started working with their suppliers to act as a conduit to donate clothing to people on the Gulf Coast who had lost everything. “When the hurricane came through, we knew we needed to do something to help because we have a lot of friends and family on the Coast, and a lot of people who shop with us have families on the Coast,” Abney said. “We really didn’t know what it was going to turn into when we asked our vendors for donations.”

They sent out about 30 e-mails to clothing distributors. Those e-mails were forwarded, and the whole effort mushroomed. In all, some 17,000 items worth $3 million were donated. And these were new — not used — clothing. Abney said they felt strongly that people on the Gulf Coast deserved to have some new clothing of good quality.

“The people on the Gulf Coast lost everything,” he said. “There was no reason to believe they should get second hand goods.”

The Rogue has been in business for 39 years, and Abney said that meant most everyone in the clothing business knows the history of the Rogue. “We have a lot of credibility built up on the name,” he said. “Many people in the clothing industry wanted to help after Katrina, but didn’t know what to do. We had a plan.”

Some of the clothing provided included 100 business suits sent to the Mississippi Bar Association for Coast attorneys, and another 100 suits to the 100 Black Men of Mississippi. Clothes were also sent to Yates Construction to help clothe workers who were showing up for work in shorts because their houses were demolished and they had no clothing.

The Rogue took in the clothes, styled and sized them, and arranged distribution. In some cases, people came into the store with specific sizes needed to transport down to people on the Coast. Other times clothing was taken to different camps or outposts on the Coast where survivors were gathering to get new things.

The Rogue also donated a percentage of its gross revenues for September and October, amounting to about $25,000 that was sent to the relief effort.

KLLM Transport Services

Transportation of vital goods was critical after Hurricane Katrina and KLLM Transport Services in Richland won an award for the work done by KLLM’s CEO K. William Grothe Jr. and COO Jim Richards and many of their 1,700 employees.

Transporting 75 truckloads of donated goods including ice and water to the stranded and homeless on the Gulf Coast was especially well received by Coast residents who didn’t have electricity in the first week or two after the storm (or longer for people who lost their homes).

“Like a lot of other companies, we saw the need,” Richards said. “No one did it for recognition. You saw people in need and responded. We didn’t do anything anyone else wouldn’t have done. A lot of our drivers donated their time. It was an entire employee effort. It made us proud that our organization stepped up like it did and employees donated their time to help.”

Their first support was to law enforcement including the Mississippi Highway Patrol and the Madison County Sheriff’s Department that was providing assistance to the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department. KLLM’s refrigerated trucks were donated to use to transport and store food, beverages and medical supplies. Later KLLM also provided free transportation to the faith-based organizations that delivered so many vital supplies to South Mississippi.

Richards said they didn’t know when they headed to Washington, D.C., to receive the SBA award that the trip would include a meeting with the President.

“On Wednesday we had breakfast in the White House, and the president wasn’t there,” Richards said. “We also attended the daily White House briefing with several Cabinet members who discussed things like Iraq and the economy. We were really a focus group, and they fielded questions from our group. Wednesday there was a big lunch at the Department of Commerce where the Secretary of Commerce spoke. On Thursday we had breakfast starting at 9 a.m. and the president spoke for about 35 minutes and hung around for another 30 minutes. It was a pretty neat deal. We weren’t informed the president would be speaking until we were in Washington.”

Richards said a lot of businesses that didn’t receive recognition also provided a lot of help in disaster relief.

Viking Range Corporation

Hurricane survivors, medical personnel and disaster relief workers had hot meals at many Coast shelters that were prepared with cooking equipment donated by Viking Range Corp. in Greenwood. Viking donated the use of its barbeque rig to the Coast Episcopal School in Long Beach where hundreds of meals were prepared each day. Viking also supplied the school with four refrigerators/freezers for food storage.

“Many Viking employees generously volunteered their time to work in shelters, travel to the Mississippi Gulf Coast for rebuilding efforts, and to assist individual evacuees in a variety of ways,” said Fred Carl Jr., president of Viking Range. “Viking employees and distributors raised $39,389 in voluntary contributions. Viking matched that amount and contributed an additional $100,000, making a contribution grand total of $178,778 which was shared by the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the Mississippi Hurricane Relief Fund.”

Viking also donated products to Morgan Freeman’s online auction benefiting the American Red Cross. The sale of these items generated $16,955 for the auction. Viking was also a major sponsor of the Windows of Hope/Share our Strength nationwide restaurant fundraiser, held on September 27, to benefit Hurricane Katrina victims. And Viking supported America’s Second Harvest celebrity fundraising dinners that were held around the country to raise money for food supplies in areas hit by the hurricanes.

The company donated grills to Iron Chef Cat Cora’s organization, Chefs for Humanity, as they partnered with the Food Network to cook for relief workers and displaced residents in Gulfport. Bedding, t-shirts, blankets, toothpaste and other hygiene items were donated to the local Red Cross shelters. A new computer and telephone were donated to the local Red Cross office so that they could assist and process evacuees in a more timely manner.

And Viking remembered that it is important to say, “Thank you.” The company designed and underwrote a full page “Thank You” advertisement from the people of Mississippi which ran in The New York Times on Wednesday, October 5, and USA Today on Thursday, October 6. “This was an expression of appreciation for the prayers, donations and volunteer work which were extended from across the country in support of the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts on the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” Carl said.

Gulf Hills Hotel & Conference Center

The only business actually located in the hurricane impacted area to receive the award was the Gulf Hills Hotel & Conference Center, a 53-room boutique hotel located near the Back Bay of Biloxi on Old Fort Bayou in Ocean Springs. This area received the highest storm surge in Jackson County.

Nearly all the nearby waterfront homes in Gulf Hills were destroyed, and employees of the Gulf Hills Hotel rescued people who were floating out with the storm surge. The newly homeless people that included Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce president Margaret Miller and her family were housed and fed until they could find other accommodations. In essence, the hotel became a hurricane shelter where food, water, medical attention and security were provided — even as the hotel struggled to cope with major flooding and loss of critical infrastructure.

“We just did what we had to do,” said Donna Brown, general manager, Gulf Hills Hotel & Conference Center. “It is just one of those things that after the fact you say: ‘Wow! We did that?’ At the time we certainly didn’t think about recognition or awards. It just happened.”

Brown insisted that the award be given not just to her, but all of the employees. “It was not my award,” said Brown, who was president of the Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce in 2005. “I accepted on behalf of the staff, hotel and the owners. It was so exciting to be there in Washington, D.C., and meet the President of the U.S. He was the keynote speaker at the American Spirit Awards breakfast that I attended. It was wonderful.”

An incredible story unfolded as the Gulf Hills Hotel took in storm survivors. “Several people floated in from the neighborhood and they were fished out of the water, complete with the family pet,” said Becky Brislin, who was a nearby resident of Gulf Hills who later joined the hotel staff. “Another little gasoline-soaked dog was plucked out of the water as it floated by in the tide. An aged couple who couldn’t swim was seen hanging in a tree and volunteers swam out to get them. Nobody was looking for the hotel; they were simply swimming for their lives.”

Brislin said between the 29th and 30th of August the numbers at the hotel grew to more than 200. Families shared a single room with their neighbors or with strangers. After the eye passed, people were seen wandering the area or in a daze after swimming for up to eight hours.

“They found their way to the hotel,” Brislin said. “Donna Brown and her staff took them all in and told them that they would deal with details later — just come in and be safe.”

Mary Ratliff and Bob Murray, owners of Bayview Gourmet, stayed at the hotel and cleaned out their restaurant’s freezers in order to help feed the many guests. They and their two daughters all lost their homes, yet they orchestrated the cooking and feeding of three meals a day for the first week.

“Brown and the staff deserve so much credit for taking care of all those people,” Ratliff said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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