Don O’Bryan has been involved with many projects during the 14 years he’s been a member of the Rotary Club of Slidell Northshore. But he holds one program, Rotary Rebuilds Slidell, particularly dear.
O’Bryan was chairman of Rotary Rebuilds Slidell, which was born in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in summer 2005. The storm devastated the Camellia City, but Rotary Rebuilds helped raise more than $2.5 million in monetary and in-kind donations worldwide.
The enormous fundraising effort allowed for the rebuilding of some of the city’s most precious organizations — K-Bar-B Youth Ranch, Rainbow Child Care, the Safe Harbor battered women’s shelter, Mount Olive A.M.E. Feeding Ministry, the Slidell Boys and Girls Club, and more.
It was for that tremendous effort, and many other smaller ones, that O’Bryan was selected as a recipient of the Rotary International Service Above Self Award.
A maximum of 150 persons are named annually, and all are nominated by current and former Rotary officers. The award is presented to those who not only “distinguish themselves through service, but to those who have made service a way of life.”
Characteristically, O’Bryan, 77, deflected much of the award’s accompanying praise, saying had he not retired a few months prior to the storm making landfall, he wouldn’t have been in position to assist the community the way he did through Rotary Rebuilds Slidell.
“I had the opportunity to do this, to help others,” O’Bryan said. “I’m grateful for the chance.
“My cell number must have been in the (Rotary directory) as being the former president of our group,” he said. “People started reaching out to us. Within a short amount of time, we had a plan for Rotary Rebuilds Slidell.
“I went about with the presidents of the two Slidell clubs at the time (Mike Rich and Andy Prude) and we organized it. We described what we wanted to do and had it on our website. People stepped up.”
Jay Rose, who was project leader on many of the rebuild sites, said O’Bryan helped lead the charge in the difficult months after the storm.
“It was three long years of work,” Rose said. “Don was the man who went out and got the donations, got people organized. I was strictly the man on site. But Don, he made it happen. … Money came from New York, Washington State, California, China, Korea, you name it. None of that could have been done without him.”
O’Bryan was born and raised in Kentucky and traveled the world as a military man. He retired as a colonel from the U.S. Army in 1981, went into private business and moved to Slidell in 1987. O’Bryan said he was called to service after seeing impoverished people not only in Third World countries but at home as well.
“There are a lot of people right here in Slidell that are in need, and until I got into Rotary, I had no clue of that,” he said. “Before the storm, I went to the old food kitchen at Mt. Olive and … the place was packed. I asked ‘Where do all these people live?’ (A woman working there) said some live under overpasses, some live in boxes in the woods. You never think of that being here, in your own backyard.”
That’s when O’Bryan began to dedicate even more time to helping those in need.
“People ask me ‘Why do you do so much?’ ” O’Bryan said. “I know that someday, I may need help. I don’t know who is going to help, but I know someone will. They just will.”
The Service Above Self Award is a reminder of the good O’Bryan already has done, but more importantly, the work he has yet to do.
“It’s humbling, absolutely,” O’Bryan said. “You don’t do this for awards. You do it because it’s the right thing to do. I’ve received a lot of awards from my time in the military and for my time in Rotary. But this honor probably tops them all.”
O’Bryan and his wife, Nancy, have seven children and 16 grandchildren.