Some folks can command a room, spinning words into the webs that capture us. Few people are magnetic with grace. But almost never do you meet someone able to command a room while also opening it up to the voices and tales of all. Ben Shenk is a rare individual, and during his time at Thrive he gave the floor to so many, bringing stories to life that would otherwise have been left hidden in the cracks of this complicated city.

Contagious Positivity

Ben came to New Orleans in thesummer of 2016 as a recent college grad who felt called to venture south. When he arrived, he hit the ground running, working with St. Roch CDC (Community Development Corporation) as an intern, raising his own salary by day and supporting the St. Roch Community Church’s Young Life program by night. “Ben always had a positive way of doing things. Sometimes he would work all day, from 8am to 8pm, then come to Young Life and interact with the kids with such a great attitude,” recalls Oscar Brown, Director of Thrive 9th Ward, thinking back to those early days. “I’ll never forget the stories he told those kids. They were so relatable, so encouraging, and always positive.” It was clear from the jump that Ben’s impact would resonate. St. Roch Community Church and CDC became a New Orleans home for Ben, and he poured his heart into their people and programs. “He really solidified the organization and put us on the map,” said Ben McLeish, founder of the church and CDC, expressing gratitude for the dedication and drive Ben brought to the team. “From mission trips, to marching for women, to Zydeco dancing, beach trips, and leading our youth, Ben has served our city and community so well, not just by the things he’s done, but by the person he is, and the way he chooses to be present and engage with the people around him,” reflects Julie Whiteman, church leader and Ben’s friend from day one. It was through the church that Ben met his wife, Ruby, and it was clear to everyone that God united them as a couple. “They truly are a beautiful couple,” Ben’s close friend and colleague at Thrive, Kayti Williams, remarked with a big smile. “Ben is so much wiser, yet so much younger, than me. He spoke the truth back to me when I really needed it.”

The Marketing Maven

As time passed, St. Roch CDC turned into Thrive New Orleans, and the organization’s branches began to multiply, integrating new programs and communities into its framework. As Thrive evolved, Ben’s role and impact grew along with it. In each of these roles, he was a bridge, bringing these new communities to life through engagement and interaction. “Ben took on each new challenge with a level of maturity and intentionality that has never ceased to amaze me,” said Chuck Morse, current Executive Director of Thrive. “He became my go to guy and I am so grateful we had his mind and heart to help push our organization forward in the right direction.” Before Ben became Thrive’s marketing maven, it was clear that storytelling was at his core. He honed his communication skills as a LaunchNOLA coordinator and facilitator, a New Orleans Toastmasters club member, a key facilitator for ConnectNOLA, and a certified StoryBrand Guide, always showing up with an innate desire to learn and build relationships. His belief in the power of empathy drove his actions and especially his writing, where he weaved his own wisdom into the stories of community members:

“ ‘I hear you. I know what it’s like to be in your shoes.’ Simple phrases that can make a world of difference in the lives of others. The power of empathy and understanding creates trust, safe spaces, and mutual understanding at times and in places that otherwise could seem foreign or uncomfortable.” – Ben Shenk

Ben’s stories always had a powerful focus: the person he was speaking about. And yet, each story tied back to Thrive’s overall mission and commitment to community building. “The stories Ben told always put people in the center, always gave dignity to people. His stories are such a huge gift to the community,” said Kayti. Before long, Ben’s marketing crew had blossomed into a multifaceted media experience, bringing on interns to help articulate personal stories to the greater community. One of those interns, Rachel, who has worked closely with Ben on videography, described his genuinely collaborative spirit: “I always had a great time mapping out projects with Ben. Even though I was an intern, Ben would treat me as his equal, and I really felt like we were working on projects together. He also focused on my personal development more than any other internship I’ve had.” If you ask anyone who has worked with Ben, they will tell you that he was truly a servant leader who went above and beyond the call of duty.

A Legacy of Humble Servant Leadership

It has now been over four years since Ben first arrived on the scene: humble, dedicated, and abundantly talented. As the calendar nears flipping once more, he is heading back north to his home state of Pennsylvania. It is a bittersweet departure, as the Thrive family loses a truly inspiring community member. Ms. Joy Williams, long-time Thrive leader, will miss his compassion the most: “He always helped me look at the situation from a very different perspective. I will never forget him, and his impact will live with Thrive forever.” “Ben has exemplified what it means to have a heart of service. He has applied his gifts and talents to the success of others while remaining in the background. He has taken seriously the call of Christ to love God and love your neighbor and has left an indelible mark on our community,” said Ben McLeish.  Another mentor and friend, Frank Loria, agreed: “I have been so impressed by his passion for Jesus, his work ethic, his care for those for whom Jesus died, and his knowing his purpose on this planet. New Orleans and all those Ben touched are better having known him.” Ben Shenk, we will miss you, and know that your compassion and impact will continue to eminante as you venture onward to new adventures, in Pennsylvania and beyond. Much love from those of us who have labored with you these last four and a half years! Written by: Emily Eckland, Thrive Director of Marketing and Jasper Roberson-Schulz, Thrive Storytelling Intern