NEW ORLEANS (WGNO) — The catastrophic damage caused by Hurricane Ida in Southeast Louisiana occurred 16 years to the day that Katrina made landfall and flooded New Orleans – killing hundreds and leaving thousands displaced.
For one Katrina survivor, who was three years old at the time her family evacuated, the memory of the 2005 hurricane is as fresh today as it was nearly two decades ago and the reason she founded a nonprofit organization (NGO) aimed at giving support to children like her who have been affected by catastrophes.
“I was just a child when it happened but it still left a huge impact on me, which is why I’ve created Comfort Bears in a Catastrophe,” Hymel told WGNO during a Zoom interview on Thursday.
“It was originally created because as a child going through Hurricane Katrina I had a favorite teddy bear that I was not able to take with me when I evacuated, so it was just left behind and completely damaged in the floodwaters. It was really hard because I took that teddy bear everywhere with me – to school, the grocery store – it was my best friend.
“So I really found myself in a grieving process, but I also kind of felt alone because I didn’t have that teddy bear to talk to, to feel that connection with and explain how I was feeling, so these teddy bears are so much more than just comforting, they really help you process trauma and help adults see how you are processing trauma, too, to know if they should get you additional resources and help.”
Currently, Hymel’s NGO is donating 200 of her ‘Comfort Bears’ to children impacted by Hurricane Ida in Louisiana.
“I’m actually partnering with a hospital, Ochnser Health in Kenner, which is actually the hospital where my dad used to work at when we were there and the hospital I was born at,” she said. “So, it’s pretty special to come back here years later and donate to them during Hurricane Ida.”
A senior at Arizona State University, the social media marketing major is already putting her knowledge to use and gaining valuable real-world work experience by creating the organization’s Instagram account and designing, branding, and running Comfort Bears’ official website.
But with a heavy workload from both school and her nonprofit, along with the uniqueness of every bear delivered, Hymel says it is a labor of love supported by a dedicated network of volunteers.
“We have a lot of volunteers that help also,” said Hymel. “We had a card-making party back in April because we attach encouraging messages on each stuffed animal that get before they go out. It makes it that much more special because they are all handwritten and each bear you receive is different, so no two children will get the same bear.
“So it makes it have that much more of a special and personal touch.”