By KELLY MCCARTHY and NICOLE CURTIS, ABC News
(NEW ORLEANS) — As hundreds of thousands in Louisiana attempt to pick up the pieces after Hurricane Laura, one man’s generosity, spirit and dedication to service is emblematic of the resilience of even the hardest-hit communities.
Since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, the city’s Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood has become a food desert. But Burnell Cotlon has identified needs in his community to create resources to help, even amidst a global pandemic.
“I did this because I live here. This is my community, this is my backyard, this is my home,” Cotlon told ABC News of why he opened the Lower Ninth Ward Market in 2014, which is the only fresh grocery store in the area and saves residents from three bus rides to the nearest store.
Cotlon’s life has been rooted in putting others before himself, and the military veteran said he’s committed to helping oversee his neighborhood’s rebirth.
“This is the only store. This is it. There’s nothing else around and that’s why it’s so important for me not to quit,” he said Monday on “Good Morning America.” “I still can see Katrina. What used to be houses is overgrown weeds and trash and debris.”
Cotlon offers locals who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 free credits to purchase groceries at his shop, which also provides laundry and haircut services.
“When you get your money, come back and pay me,” he said of his business model. “This is a no brainer for me that I’ll continue to fight and keep doing what I’m doing.”
“I was very fortunate to find out what my purpose is — it’s simple, it’s service. That’s why I was able to go from serving my country to now my community,” he explained. “I’m supposed to help you, you’re supposed to help me and if everyone looked at life like that it would be a lot easier.”
The Lower Ninth Ward, which has been desperate for help for over a decade, now faces another crisis that Cotlon is attempting to tackle.
“Now, because of this COVID thing, people need houses. So I started a nonprofit, it’s called Building with Burnell,” he said, adding that the purpose is “to start building affordable houses to help my community.”
He continued, “It’s extremely hard, but the COVID hit and it hurt everybody mentally and also financially.”
Cotlon said he has spent his “entire life savings” on his market and the housing nonprofit.
“But I’m not complaining,” he added. “I would do this again in a heartbeat because it feels good knowing that my hard work and my efforts can effect so many lives. I have no regrets.”
Cotlon explained that the current total of personal cost in credits for people to receive groceries at Lower Ninth Ward Market has reached nearly $3,000, so he was stunned when “GMA” surprised him with a check for $5,000.
“You have no idea how much this means to me. This is going to help out so many people,” he said with a huge smile, while fighting back tears of joy. “I will continue to do anything I can to help my community.”
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