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As I sat in my living room last Sunday evening and watched the New Orleans Saints become the world football champions, I couldn’t help but think back to the days following Katrina. One of our customer relationships called right after the storm to tell us they weren’t sure what happened to their properties in New Orleans. They couldn’t make contact with the managers. Could we help? I immediately said yes. When a friend asks, you step in and do anything you can.

Two days after Katrina smashed into the Louisiana coast, I made a call to a friend at the FAA and he gave us clearance to fly. We rounded up a four passenger Bell Jet Ranger Helicopter and proceeded to New Orleans MSA. It was a relief to discover that, other than minor damage, the properties were not affected. They were even more fortunate that their entire team was accounted for and safe.

These images taken by Clinton Smith came from that uneasy helicopter tour. Revisiting them reminded me how tragedy can affect us all when we least expect it. Nine months after Katrina, I was back in New Orleans and cars remained stacked on top of cars underneath Interstate 10. Many of the shops on Canal Street were still not open.

But instead of being a defeat, the battering from the storm united the city and strengthened the ties that bound residents. The Crescent City has come a long way since the tragedy they endured four years ago. Today, New Orleans is back in business and home to a championship team. A new set of fans rallied around the Saints not because of their football skills, but because of what they represented—the American dream of rising above a challenge. Super Bowl XLIV became the most watched program in television history.

In the final few minutes of the game last Sunday evening, I e-mailed my customer in New Orleans to get his insight on the game. How did it feel? His response: “Who dat gonna beat ‘dem Saints?” What a great story of triumph over adversity.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.
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Last week we received a plaque from The Heart of America Foundation for the improvements we provided an inner city Atlanta elementary school. It’s a beautiful memento covered with pictures of students enjoying their new space. As I looked at all the smiling faces, it reminded me why we made the commitment last June.

Jim Gustafson and Patrick Davis, two of our strategic partners at Target, called to ask if we would be interested in teaming on the rebuild. I agreed, mainly because of the people who asked. When I got off the phone I started second guessing myself. With the Recession and our revenues down, what was I thinking? Fortunately, my conscience kicked in and helped me realize that it doesn’t matter. A friend asked for our partnership—they could help with supplies and we could help with the balance need—and children would benefit for years to come. We would figure out how to make it happen for these kids. Clinton Smith, who led the initiative from our end, did just that.

The library at Beecher Hills Elementary received a complete transformation including 2000 new books, updated technology and colorful interiors conducive to learning. “We know that pre-K through fifth grade is the period that sets the tone for reading,” said first-year Principal Crystal Jones. “Getting this done will go a long way toward making that happen.” Maybe the library can even provide a “tipping point” for these kids just like Malcolm Gladwell mentions in his book.

“You have not just changed the library, you have changed the lives of our children forever,” said Dr. Sharon Davis Williams, executive director of Atlanta Public Schools for southwest Atlanta schools.

I knew the children were thrilled, but looking at the pictures last week it made it all worthwhile. I called Jim and Patrick and asked them to sign us up for another school next summer. I couldn’t pass up the chance to help kids learn.

Check out more of the library renovation celebration on my flickr photostream.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.