Renee Ellis Honored
ATHENA Award recipient known for helping others
On a sultry August day in 2005, Renee’ Ellis threw a few things in her yellow Hummer and left her Mandeville, La., home. She didn’t need to take much, planning to be gone only a few days. After all, she was used to evacuating when a hurricane was headed toward the Gulf Coast.
Two days later, Katrina – a Category 5 storm – slammed into south Louisiana, killing 1,800 people and doing $125 billion in damage.
Those “few days” away from home turned into 15 years – and counting.
Ellis, a New Orleans educator and business owner, drove 17 hours to Shreveport. She watched the news, saw the devastation and soon realized her life was about to change.
“They started talking about there’s not going to be any more New Orleans public school system,” Ellis remembered. “That really hit home. After being here a couple of weeks, we did receive a pink slip. We had to go get our final paycheck at a Western Union. That was it. There was no more New Orleans public school system. There was no "you have a job." You couldn’t even come back to New Orleans and get anything because everything was under protective order. The military was surrounding the city. New Orleans – how it was – was no more.”
Fast forward to December 2020, and Ellis has more than put her life back together. So much so that she is the recipient of the 2020 ATHENA Leadership Award. Each year, the Greater Shreveport Chamber honors someone who, among other things, devotes their time and energy to improve the quality of life for others.
“I did make a promise that if I could just get past the hurricane – the lowest point in my life – I would, for the rest of my life, help out anyone I possibly could that was in need,” Ellis said. “That’s what I’ve been doing since (late) 2005. A lot of people say it’s a big deal, but to me, it’s just what I’m supposed to do. I’ve really been blessed by being here. Shreveport has never made me feel like an outsider, even though I know I am. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
In her 28th year as an educator, Ellis is the community engagement specialist for the transformation zone within the Caddo Parish school system. That means she spends most of her time building relationships with business partners, who in turn donate time and money to schools that need help the most. Ellis is now using her platform as an ATHENA recipient to bring attention to Caddo's students' needs.
“I never thought I was going to win, but I am so honored that the children are getting a voice,” Ellis said. “People are calling now, asking, 'How can I help the kids in the Transformation Zone?' That is very fulfilling and rewarding. I just want their voice to be heard. I just want them to be seen, no matter the zip code they’re in. I want as many people as possible to say, 'Yeah, even though I live on this side of town, don’t forget about the children in this zip code.' It really warms my heart that even more people are opening up their hearts, their minds and their wallets to help the kids that are most in need . All they need is one person to believe in them."
But Ellis’ desire to help others is not limited to children. While the principal at Shreveport’s Westwood Elementary, Ellis noticed who she assumed was a full-time custodian.
“I would be there at 5:30 in the morning, and she would be there right behind me,” Ellis remembered. “I would leave at 8 at night, and she would still be there. One day I asked her how long she had been with the Caddo school system, and she said, 'Mrs. Ellis, I'm just a sub.' She said, 'I've been trying to get on permanently with Caddo, but they say they're not hiring.' I said, 'Does that mean you don't have any insurance?' She said, 'No ma'am.' I said, 'Just give me 30 days. You will not be working at this school without any insurance. You're the only one working harder than me.' Because of Ellis, the woman who worked 14-and-a-half-hour days as a fill-in, is now the school's head custodian, overseeing eight people.
"That's a life-changing story," Ellis said.
Ellis’ life has changed, also. She eventually went back to Mandeville and got her clothes and other personal items. However, the New Orleans building she owned – which housed her tutoring business – was a total loss.
“I had to see it to realize it was over,” Ellis said.
But Ellis' new life was just beginning. Little did she know it would be her best life.
“When I came to Shreveport, it was like I had to start over. Shreveport has been so very good to me.”
And Ellis – the 2020 ATHENA Leadership Award recipient – has been so very good to Shreveport.