Kendra Sullivan had just missed Hurricane Katrina as an outreach worker in Louisiana in 2005. She was two hours west of New Orleans in Lafayette.
But the emotion of the event had still hit her head on.
The West Virginia University student who graduates this month with a masters in public administration had already seen her share of poverty in the parishes.
She was working as a case manager for Big Brothers and Big Sisters in Lafayette, and before that, she was a volunteer with AmeriCorps, the human services organization that serves as a domestic version of the Peace Corps.
When people are hurting,she said,theyre hurting.
The pain went off the scale when Katrina made landfall during that hot, late August three years ago.
Lafayette escaped the devastation, and Sullivan was finishing up her AmeriCorps appointment. Katrina still roared through her consciousness when she saw all those buses on Interstate 10.
I-10 is the road people take into Houston, which is what she was doing. She was picking up a friend for the drive back home to West Virginia.
She shared the road with a caravan of buses inching along to the parking lot of Houstons famed Astrodome stadium.
The iconic sports arena was slowly morphing itself into a port in the storm for the people from the devastated parishes and beach communities across the Gulf.
A lot of them were criticized for trying to ride out the hurricane,said Sullivan, 26, who spent part of her childhood in Louisiana and Texas as her father, who worked in the oil and gas industry, followed jobs back and forth across the two borders.
But the thing was,she said,they stayed because they didnt have anywhere to go.
Seeing the devastation in New Orleans reaffirmed her sense of mission, she said.
A lot of the storm survivors were disenfranchised on a good day,she said,and these definitely werent good days. Not after Katrina.
Wanting to help the disenfranchised is what got her into this in the first place.
Her family had settled in Beckley for good just in time for Sullivan to enter junior high. After high school, she went to Marshall University for her undergraduate degree in sociology and cultivated a social awareness.
Thats when I started becoming aware,she said.I got a real sense of how society is stratified, and how the playing field isnt level for everyone.
She set out to change that. She did a lot of field work in the rural outreaches of Wayne and Cabell counties. She saw people in poverty and emotional pain, and she just knew she wanted to help.
The now-Mountaineer still felt a kinship with the Louisiana of her youth. She went back there, too, for the AmeriCorps and Big Brothers and Big Sisters appointments in Lafayette Parish.
Just like in West Virginia, she was seeing people in the Gulf who, while working hard, werent even getting by. It was a constant, she said, and it didnt matter if she was in the parishesrural areas or urban enclaves.
They were struggling,she said.It didnt matter where they were.
These days, Sullivan is back home in West Virginia, where on top of completing her graduate degree at WVU , she works at Cabin Creek Health Systems, a nonprofit outreach center in Kanawha County that was formed 30 years ago by coal miners looking to bring primary and urgent care medical services to their communities.
She was placed there through West Virginia Rural Health Education Partnerships, a unique medical outreach program that offers medical care of every stripe for residents in the states more isolated areas.
The program works with colleges, universities and medical facilities across the state. Its a final year requirement for students training in the health professions, and the WVU end of the partnership in Morgantown takes in the schools of Medicine, Pharmacy, Nursing and Dentistry at the Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center.
Sullivans job at Cabin Creek is to help recruit health care professionals to rural West Virginia, while also overseeing health clinics at East Bank Middle School and Riverside High School in Kanawha County.
Craig Robinson, Cabin Creeks director, says hes impressed by Sullivan because of her work ethic and her ability to engage people from all walks for a shared goal.
Kendras not a self-promoter,said Robinson, who helped found Cabin Creek as an organizer with the United Mine Workers of America.She finds a place where she can advance the causethen she just goes out and does it. Shes really effective at East Bank and Riverside. Shes helping students realize they have a voice, too.
L. Christopher Plein, who chairs WVU s Division of Public Administration, said Sullivan found her voice early on.
Marshall University produced a quality professional,he said,and now in Morgantown and at Cabin Creek, shes contributing to that broader mission of service to our state that the two universities share. Its good, noble work, and shes just getting started.
With that work, Sullivan has already taken on vital research projects. Shes explored the gap between earning power and outreach services, and she is currently examining health reform.
Just seeing how people live is very telling,she said.We can make this better. So many of us are refugees in our own country, and it doesnt have to be that way.
Sullivan will be among 1,400 students taking part in the December Graduates Convocation. Ceremonies are at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 14, at the WVU Coliseum. Interim WVU President C. Peter Magrath will deliver keynote remarks. (Related release at http://wvutoday.wvu.edu/news/page/7287/ ).