Karin Hopkins Data News Weekly Contributor
Knocked Down And Dazed When Kyshun Webster reflects on Hurricane Katrina from a personal perspective, he sees how the worst time in his life molded him into a man of confidence, character, and courage. This was a period of stark contrast for him. In 2005, he was awarded a doctoral degree, the highest educational status a person can attain. That same year, his wife gave birth to their first son and their daughter transitioned easily to the role of big sister. Life was good and the future was bright until Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. He was 28 years old in August 2005, at the time his large extended family evacuated to Dallas to escape horrifying conditions at home only to encounter a brand-new crisis. Newly minted as Dr. Kyshun Webster, he faced grim prospects about money, housing, and everything else in life. Just a few days earlier, he had been the young darling of the family, the exceptional student who made his grandmother and mother so proud. In this time of distress, they now looked to him for answers. A natural born problem-solver, he found ways to feed his family and address other immediate needs. At some point, he even began thinking about the long-term potential for work. He pondered whether returning to his job at Xavier University would be possible. He loved working closely with Dr. Norman Francis, who brought Kyshun into the administrative inner-circle shortly after Kyshun completed his B.A. degree at Xavier. He also interviewed for jobs in other cities but ultimately decided to return to his roots. This led him to reimagine the initiative that was his first entry into education. As an 11-year-old adolescent, he founded a tutoring program in the family’s garage. This was actually motivated by a series of traumatic experiences. He remembers struggling in the first grade and feeling humiliated. He also recalls painful gut punches to his six-year-old self. “I had a grandfather who died that year. And then I saw my uncle brutally murdered. This caused our family to flee from public housing to the Lower Ninth Ward. I went inside myself and was not coping well. My first-grade teacher failed me, because I wasn’t able to focus. When I somehow recovered from that, I became this overachiever who had to prove myself. And so, I decided at an early age that I wanted to help other kids to know that they too could achieve academic success.” A Child in an Adult Area This peer tutoring project was the seed for Operation REACH, which he founded while he was an undergraduate student in college. He engaged other college students to work as tutors helping under-resourced children with their school lessons. This program was initially set up in the St. Bernard Housing Project, where Kyshun was raised as a child. It was a sustainable model that grew over the years, helping more children, attracting more college students, and requiring additional staff support. Swinging Back About Operation Reach Like so many other organizations, Operation REACH was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Yet, a reboot was percolating. Still in exile, Dr. Webster and his close friend and colleague, Hamilton Simons-Jones, came up with a bold idea. They mounted an aggressive effort to recruit college students for volunteer service with an Opera tion REACH subsidiary. Dr. Webster was amazed at the response to the project they named Gulfsouth Youth Action Corps (GYAC). “Mind you, we had no money whatsoever when we began this recruiting campaign. To our surprise, eighty students from across the U.S. signed up to become GYAC members. Within 60 days, we had raised more than $500,000 to assist the New Orleans Recreation Department operate summer camps for youth in 2006.” Hamilton Simons-Jones says, “These camps didn’t just provide middle school students a meaningful space for fun and safe recreational activities after such a traumatic experience, but also gave them a chance to share their perspectives on recovery with decision-makers, and design and engage in community projects to help the city and their peers recover.” The concept impressed officials at the highest levels of government. Dr. Webster was personally contacted by The White House and invited to expand the program across the Gulf South, eventually reaching about 10,000 young people and deploying hundreds of college students. The expansion placed Dr. Webster and his New Orleans based project among an elite group of national service organizations, including Teach for America and Habitat for Humanity. While Hurricane Katrina crippled Operation REACH, a betrayal destroyed it. A disgruntled top administrator within the organization accused Dr. Webster of financial mismanagement. These allegations were proven to be totally false, and Dr. Webster was vindicated but the damage done to Operation REACH was irreparable. Stopping Is Not in His Vocabulary He was hurt but still productive. After Operation REACH, he developed a concept to provide burned out non-profit executives with a financial cushion for much-needed time off from work. This morphed into Compassion Society Benefits, an insurance company with the missing piece of the puzzle for national, paid family care leave. He attracted investors, secured office space, and built a team, including a CEO and an operations manager who ran the company. This arrangement was in place when he accepted a job with the City of New Orleans in 2018 to reform the juvenile detention facility, renamed the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center (JJIC). Entrusted by Mayor LaToya Cantrell with the tall-order mandate to transform JJIC, he is proud of his work there and feels the New Orleans community would be pleased to know JJIC experienced positive and measured change while he was the director, such as a 70% increase in school attendance and a 90% reduction in youth assaults. These statistics are the result of policies and procedures Dr. Webster implemented and they are consistent with the opinion held by consultant and executive coach, Linetta Gilbert. “I met Kyshun in the early 1990s as a youth participant of the New Orleans Chapter of the 21st Century Leadership Camp. Creat ing effective solutions through innovative programs and policies for his community is a big part of Kyshun’s DNA. Twenty+ years later, Dr. Webster is a trusted partner, a thought leader in change management and education and a critical social entrepreneur.” He took the heat in January 2022 when four juveniles escaped from the facility. He did not identify the employee who broke the rules by going into a section of the facility alone, allowing the juveniles to overpower her, take her swipe card and run off. He says, “I fell on the sword because as a leader, that’s my job.” Punching Holes In News Headlines This attitude is no surprise to respected New Orleans minister, community organizer and civic leader, Bishop Tom Watson who says this about Dr. Webster. “His service to the local community is outstanding and valued on many fronts. He is a servant leader with high moral character and a solid spiritual foundation.” Bishop Watson also commends Dr. Webster for tackling complex concerns, “His passion to develop and implement actionable solutions to problems and issues has elevated him to the status of visionary leader.” Dr. Webster chose to resign his position as JJIC Director in May 2022 for personal reasons. It is now just another experience that made him stronger, just like Hurricane Katrina. Still Standing Strong Storms, whether whipped up by Mother Nature or stirred up by controversy, don’t break him nor define him. Instead, tough times sharpen his confidence and further reveal his character and courage.