Southeast Louisiana saw many silent heroes in the dark days after Hurricane Katrina, people who came from near and far to help those most in need — and who never asked for anything in return, not even a "Thank you." One of those silent heroes is Gary Ostroske, who retires this week as head of United Way of Southeast Louisiana.
Ostroske's impact on post-Katrina communities is immeasurable. When I asked a few United Way board members and staffers to offer their thoughts on his retirement, the response was literally overwhelming.
"Gary exemplifies leadership," says Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser. "I don't know what Plaquemines Parish would have done without him after Katrina."
Nungesser tells the story of driving to Belle Chasse with Ostroske one day shortly after the storm. They spotted a woman carrying a large basket of laundry. She had walked miles from a FEMA trailer park because there were no laundry facilities there. Ostroske committed $10,000 from United Way on the spot to help bring washers and dryers to Plaquemines "so people who barely had any clothes left could at least have clean clothes," Nungesser says. "He did things in days and weeks — not months or longer."
Others who have worked with Ostroske during his 40-year tenure with United Way — 25 of them leading the local nonprofit — tell similar stories. All note his style of managing things "where the rubber meets the road" in times of greatest need. As one board member put it, "When things were at their worst, Gary said, 'Forget the rule book, let's just help people.'"
United Way's efforts with the St. Bernard Project are legendary in that hard-hit parish, as is Ostroske's post-Katrina commitment to rebuilding and establishing child care centers in flooded out areas of New Orleans. He was among the first to recognize that southeast Louisiana's recovery depended on families being able to return, and families could not return without child care. In lower Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes, United Way distributed food, clothing, donations, furniture, personal items and cleaning supplies — and secured refrigerator/freezer trailers for commercial fishermen who needed food storage.
"Any nonprofit must do three things well," says Frank Glaviano, a past United Way board chairman. "It must raise money, keep administrative costs to an absolute minimum and spend the money efficiently in accordance with the organization's mission. United Way performs these functions, in large part, because Gary is involved 'hands on' with each aspect.
"In the weeks, months and even years following Katrina, when the wounds of New Orleans would not easily heal, Gary and United Way made major adjustments in fundraising and, more importantly, in how service was delivered to the people of our area."
Among the "whatever it takes" services that Ostroske implemented after the storm were the agency's 2-1-1 information and assistance line, which worked when 911 service was down in many areas. United Way also continued (and, in some cases, increased) funding to its nonprofit partners when governmental funding dried up. The agency also served as an uncompensated fiscal agent for other nonprofits that received foundation and governmental support.
Civic leader Flo Schornstein, another United Way member, served on the search committee that hired Ostroske and has worked with him ever since. "Gary is a strong leader and never disappoints," she says. "He always sees things through."
After more than two decades leading the local United Way, the 64-year-old Ostroske has earned a rest. He leaves behind a great legacy, and he takes with him the gratitude of many.