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Marcel Rivera-Ayestas | St. Bernard Project

St. Bernard Project

Rebuilding the Homes and Lives of Katrina Survivors

Marcel Rivera-Ayestas

Marcel Rivera-Ayestas, 61, has dedicated his life to helping those who are less fortunate.

“Go for the core of your being,” Marcel said, quoting a close spiritual friend. “The core of my being is to help care for God’s children.”

A native of Honduras, Marcel is a single father to daughter Kayla and son, David. He is a grassroots organizer, mostly for the rights of day-laborers.

Though Marcel works hard to help others, he found himself in need of help after Katrina swept through New Orleans in 2005, devastating the city.

Marcel left the Sunday before Katrina, after his son, who is studying law in Guatemala, implored him to leave. Marcel joined the mass exodus out of New Orleans, but not before helping transport hundreds of homeless people from the local homeless shelter to a hurricane shelter.

Marcel spent the weeks following Katrina’s landfall in a van in a parking garage in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He then temporarily lived in Georgia until he returned to New Orleans in December 2005.

“New Orleans was a war scene out of Honduras,” said Marcel, looking up from the craggy street beneath his feet at the other crumbling homes neighboring his. “New Orleans was neglected; saving this city and its inhabitants was completely left up to those who remained.”

Today, still unable to rebuild his home by himself, Marcel takes up temporary residence in a trailer in Mississippi, commuting back to New Orleans to work as a carpenter and to continue grassroots organizing. After Katrina, he continued The Wall, a soup kitchen and homeless shelter that he founded in 2001, despite his own need to return to his home.

According to Marcel, this monthly-held soup kitchen has fed nearly 1 million people since he started it.

“Sometimes all they need is a cup of coffee,” Marcel said. “The cup of coffee is like a pebble tossed into a pond, causing cascading ripple effects. It’s a small gesture, but it’s what this city needs.”

Marcel, whose personality exudes modesty and warm compassion, is nationally recognized as a community leader. In the past, Marcel has been asked to lecture at grassroots organization seminars at universities, including Harvard. At one time, President Jimmy Carter recognized Marcel for his work by inviting him to dinner with him and his wife.

“Right now, it’s difficult driving from Mississippi to New Orleans everyday,” said Marcel, “but it’s because of grassroots efforts like St. Bernard Project that I believe in the power of people and community. I look forward to the day that I can come home.”

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