Local entrepreneur aims to help disaster victims

ENCINITAS — As owner of the hip Detour salon on Highway 101, and past president of the Downtown Encinitas Mainstreet Association, Crystal Wells stands as one of Encinitas’ most successful entrepreneurs.
After Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005, Wells’ priorities changed from making money to helping disaster victims rebuild. Six years later she still calls New Orleans home.
Wells said she was imbued with these values growing up in a family of four children in Cardiff.
“My dad was always trying to help the underdog,” she explained. “My mother was a nurse at Tri-City Hospital so she was also very compassionate. It was very important to give back.”
Wells said she felt helpless as she watched news of Katrina unfold on the television.
“If the government wasn’t going to be there, I thought volunteers should,” she said. “I signed up with The Red Cross and then I got an e-mail from Habitat for Humanity looking for volunteers to gut homes in St. Bernard Parish.”
Wells took a week off from the salon to help.
“I was expecting a whole lot of people doing a whole lot of clean up,” she said. “All I saw was a very grassroots effort involved in feeding and housing people.”
Seeing a community the size of Encinitas completely evacuated struck close to home.
“It was unbelievable, indescribable,” she said. “About my second day I called work and said I’m going to stay a second week because they need help. I was a wreck, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and couldn’t believe no one was here.”
Wells returned to Encinitas, then went back to New Orleans and stayed a month. She again returned to Encinitas, this time to meet with her employees and announce that she was going to take a year off.
“The business was doing fine without me,” she said. “It was a big decision to leave, but I found that my calling was here. What I could contribute was far more important, and made more sense, then staying and running Detour. I set it up to run without me, because I didn’t want the business, and everyone’s livelihood, to be dependent on my well-being.”
After her work with Habitat for Humanity ended, she became director of volunteerism for the St. Bernard Parish in June 2009 where she supervised the conversion of a two-story, 40,000 square feet Catholic school into the third site for Camp Hope. The facility served as a base camp for volunteers helping rebuild homes of those who were handicapped, elderly or underinsured.
“After the oil spill in April 2010 the Parish turned our camp into housing for BP oil workers, and it remained that for a long time,” she remembers.
Last October Wells accepted a job as a volunteer coordinator in Haiti, reorganizing a shelter and headquarters facility for volunteer doctors and nurses. Over a period of four months, she trained Haitians to assume her responsibilities after her departure. The goal was to create a model to show other non-government agencies that, given the opportunity, they could rebuild their own countries, too.
In hindsight, Wells said she reacted to each crisis from a sense of civic duty. She recommends that other Americans take time off to volunteer either in their own community, another community that needs help or overseas.
“It binds families in a way that nothing else can,” she said. “If you give without any expectation of a reward, you will be handed something in return you cannot buy or put a price on.”  
Wells has since returned to her home in St. Bernard Parish. With tax incentives that make New Orleans attractive to film producers, she has carved out a new career as a hair stylist on movie sets.
Even though she returns for visits to her home in Leucadia, she has no immediate plans to relocate to the coast permanently.
“I like the culture here,” she said. “It is very different, and a little bit slower. There’s a lot going on and it’s very interesting, and old, which I like.”   
Wells offers this advice for San Diegans in preparation for a natural disaster.
“Don’t count on the government,” she said. “Depend on yourself and what you are able to do.”

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