September 23, 2005 | By: Aimee Nielson

When the Tsumani struck South East Asia last December, Jessamine County Extension Family and Consumer Sciences Agent Marisa FitzGerald conducted a program to educate people about the affected areas and to raise money for victims. Her mother is a native of Thailand so it was personal to her, but still so far away. In the days after Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S. Gulf Coast, FitzGerald began to think of ways she could help the victims of a tragedy much closer to home.

She and a group of community leaders in Jessamine County began to amass ideas and then resources to organize a trip to Louisiana to help people who have lost nearly everything.

“We are taking a little bit of everything because we think a lot of people have lost everything,” she said. “It was a personal decision but also a work decision [to go]. Extension is really a grass roots organization, and we’re all about our people. Our people are our best assets.”

FitzGerald said just about everyone in the community wanted to participate. Local banks gave money and supplies and provided storage locations. Restaurants, stores and other businesses collected cash and supplies, and a local trucking company is providing transportation for all the supplies to Louisiana. Even Nissan on Nicholasville got involved by donating a courtesy van for FitzGerald to drive down, loaded with supplies. A Jessamine County deputy sheriff will provide an escort for the caravan.

Nicholasville Now [downtown revitalization program] Executive Director Karola Hartley is a Louisiana native. Much of her family still lives in the state, most in a town 150 miles northwest of New Orleans called Opelousas in St. Landry Parish. Her ties to Louisiana opened opportunities for Jessamine County to serve hurricane victims. FitzGerald and eight to 10 others from Jessamine County plan to stay in Opelousas for about a week. 

“Overnight they almost doubled their population because of Katrina evacuees,” Hartley said. “The town has a population of 20,000 people. I found out they desperately needed help because they didn’t have the resources to handle the influx of this many people overnight. Most left thinking they were going to be gone two days, like usual, so they only brought things for that. They had absolutely nothing. They also know they don’t have anything to go back to. The volunteers there have been wonderful but they are getting tired, so we’re going to relieve them.”

The group will cook, provide transportation for kidney dialysis patients, help operate the distribution center and they may even help organize a benefit concert to raise additional funds in the area they are serving.

“It’s a great opportunity,” FitzGerald said. “Watching it on the news is so different from actually being able to be there. It’s such a huge tragedy, but if every person is able to help out in any capacity they can, things can improve so much faster.” 

Extension Homemakers and 4-H members have been involved in collecting items to ship to Opelousas, enough to fill five large trucks so far. 

“The response has been unbelievable,” said Hartley of her community’s efforts. “At a time like this there are people who need so much and we see our people show up and be there for them. My home will always be in Opelousas, but Jessamine County is a wonderful community to live in.”

Other Extension groups around Kentucky are doing their part to help fellow Americans affected by the disaster. In Woodford County, 4-Hers learned to make and can jellies, jams and 
salsas earlier this year. They decided to sell the goods and donate the proceeds to hurricane relief. Some 4-H agents are looking at the possibility of going to Katrina-stricken areas to help youth, while one 4-H camp in Kentucky has offered to house up to 270 evacuees through April 2006.

Tom Priddy, agricultural meteorologist for the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture recently expanded his weather service to include forecasts and weather information in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The Web site is

Kentucky Cooperative Extension has also set up a fund to help Extension professionals in the hurricane affected states. Several Extension offices were damaged, and Extension staff lost homes and property. Needs are still being assessed and a more organized relief effort likely will take shape soon.



Writer: Aimee Nielson 859-257-4736, ext. 267

Contact: Marisa FitzGerald 859-885-4811