Photo by Jeannie Frey Rhodes

Women with a Cause 2020: Sarah Joy Hays

‘You won’t be prepared for what you’ll see.”

Those were the words spoken by Sarah Joy Hays’ father prior to her first drive back to Lake Charles, her hometown through high school, one week after the devastation of Hurricane Laura. She drove bearing gifts—what she has called “essentials to human dignity”—in small bags of toiletries, boxes of clothes and Amazon Wish List packages purchased by donors to be distributed via established local organizations like churches or grocery store pop-ups. But for Hays, who owns local bakery CounterspaceBR, organizing aid in the wake of natural disasters has been par for the course since the devastating floods of 2016, when her years of giving back to the community officially materialized into the Foot Above Foundation.

“Anytime people find themselves in some kind of need, there are always some people—however well intentioned—who hand out things to people in a way that says, ‘I’m giving this to you because I have it and you don’t,’ which makes it seem like you’re in a position above them,” says Hays. “I try to phrase it as, ‘Your circumstances may have changed, but my circumstances have allowed me to come alongside you.’ If people can receive what they need with independence and dignity, and not like a garage sale of old possessions, that really helps alleviate the amount of shame that can come after a major loss.”

Having experienced that sense of shame herself after a job loss years ago, and with her prior experience working for campus ministries and D.C. nonprofits, Hays understands that spiritual aid is a necessary component to life’s rebuilding process.

“When I went back to Lake Charles, I had some high school girls volunteering with me, cooking hot meals and handing them out, and I always stress the importance of asking the people you’re serving for their names, to introduce yourself,” she says. “I think there’s a lot of white saviorism that happens in disaster relief, and this is an opportunity to really get to know people and elevate the respect you have for them.”

Hays’ garage still overflows with items waiting for their next trip across the state, and her bakery also serves as a drop-off point for supplies she tracks with the organizations collecting them, careful not to gather an overabundance of less necessary items.

“Honestly the biggest impact on me has been meeting all the wonderful people who have jumped in to help,” says Hays. “It’s easy to see pain during a natural disaster, but I hope that those experiences also teach us how to recognize pain in everyday life, and to keep coming alongside each other when the damage isn’t as obvious as a hurricane or a flood.”