On Labor Day last September, I flew to the Astrodome in Houston where thousands of people who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina were being housed. I brought along a handmade sign that read, "Are you looking for a job?"
Within minutes, I was surrounded by hundreds of people who shared their stories with me. They had lost their homes, possessions, jobs and in some cases, contact with family and friends. These were cashiers, housekeepers, laborers, drivers, prep cooks, dishwashers and janitors. And all of them were eager to rebuild their lives and get back to work.
Their stories were similar, but one young woman struck me with her innocence and fear. Doris Banks, a resilient 20-year-old single mother of a 4-year-old boy, had an angelic face and sweet disposition. She lived in a public housing project in New Orleans and had been working at Taco Bell there when the storm struck. She took shelter in the city's Convention Center before being bused to Houston, with nothing but the clothes on her back.
After a few dozen calls, a Taco Bell in Houston told me they'd hire her on the spot. A landlord in Houston agreed to rent her a beautiful garden apartment -- a major improvement from her former cramped quarters. We went over to a local Wal-Mart and purchased everything she needed for her new home.
Our new friendship generated a lot of media coverage. From that, I got a bunch of letters, and invariably the writers called Banks a "very lucky lady." The majority wondered if Banks knew just how "lucky" she was to have met me.
I found the use of the word lucky quite curious, because I never once thought of her this way. I thought of her as smart. She was smart enough to get up off of her cot and approach me, a total stranger, to ask for help. She could have sat there -- like thousands of other people did -- waiting for help to come to her, waiting for someone to tap her shoulder with an offer of assistance. Instead, she stood up and took a chance herself.
There's a lot of grace in asking for help -- grace and smarts that comes with not being too proud or too scared to seek help when you know you need it. In that regard, Banks is an exceptional example for all of us.
For any number of reasons, many people -- especially women -- often shy away from asking for what we want or deserve, on the job, in our relationships, and throughout our lives. Not her. Banks showed tremendous grace and determination in asking for what she needed. If she could do it, so can the rest of us.
Since then, a lot has happened between us. After she learned that she could make more money on a more desirable shift, Banks jumped ship and accepted a great position running the photo lab of a CVS Pharmacy just a few blocks away. She's held that job since October and her pleasant personality and exceptional customer service skills make her uniquely qualified.
I visited Banks in Houston in November, and I immediately noticed that she still had the price tags on the dining room chairs, as well as plastic covers on the lampshades. When I asked why, she said, "I've never owned all new things and the tags are a reminder that it's all brand new and it's mine."
Little moments like that remind me how fortunate I am -- and how proud I remain to have met her.
For Christmas, which was just weeks after her 21st birthday, I bought Banks her first computer. I figured if she could process photos, she surely could navigate a Dell.
Banks dropped out of high school in her senior year to care for her baby, but is now getting her GED. This will pave the way for her to enroll in community college to begin a course of study on the road to becoming a nursing assistant or a pharmacy tech.
Her son, Michael, who turns 5 in May, lives temporarily with his grandma in Alabama. He's happily settled in a great pre-kindergarten and he visits his mom often. Banks misses him and longs for the day he'll move in with her, but for now she knows that it's important to pursue an education and a career that will benefit them both long term. There's been only one bump: I've been paying Banks' cell phone bill and when I got the first one, I freaked. That girl talked more in one month than I do on mine in a year. Miss Talker vows to cut back.
Banks' story is a reminder that, even though they were able to provide temporary shelter, food and clothing, the government and relief organizations can't be expected to rebuild the spirits of the people of New Orleans. And she'd be the first to admit that she's managed to bounce back so well because one person took her by the hand and talked to her almost daily to offer financial and emotional support and guidance. My commitment hasn't wavered in the six months since we first met.
Even though I've built a career on connecting top employers with talented women, getting to know Banks has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my life.
Banks couldn't be any more grateful for the assistance she's received. Thousands of other New Orleans evacuees haven't been as fortunate as they struggle to find their way. I often think about the good people I met who I couldn't help because of time and resources, even though they were no less deserving.
I firmly believe that being an American comes with the responsibility to help others. No matter what our means, each of us has the ability to lend a hand to someone in need. At the end of the day, it's the most valuable work we can do.
To connect with Tory Johnson or to learn more about career advancement opportunities, visit www.womenforhire.com.