Profile: Glenn Olsen

High-Risk Population Specialist

Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the U.S. Department of Labor was looking for state Disability Navigators to work its “Disability Program Navigator (DPN) Katrina Initiative” in Louisiana and Mississippi. DPN was launched by the DOL and the Social Security Administration in 2002 to help people with disabilities to more fully utilize the employment services and other benefits that are available to them.

The DOL asked Glenn Olsen, a high-risk population specialist and director of the Navigator Program for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, if he’d be a team lead.

Olsen didn’t have to take the assignment but he did. After all, he’d be helping one of the nation’s most vulnerable populations at a time when “most disaster plans did not include people with disabilities.” While most volunteer navigators, nearly 50 altogether from 13 states, were in a rotation, Olsen, as team lead, was on the ground for three months, working 72-to 86-hour weeks at straight salary.

“For the first month, we had no hotel rooms,” Olsen recalls. But the lack of shelter was nothing compared to the losses endured by the people they were helping.

Olsen says navigators in Louisiana and Mississippi worked to identify and stabilize people with disabilities, attend to their emergency needs and help them find employment.

It was no easy task in the first weeks. People and public services were not only scattered, they were on the move from one temporary location to another. Olsen and his team would talk to police and fire departments and visit churches and other places where victims were gathering to find people they could help. The team located what services were available and established services that were needed.

Over the three months, Olsen says the navigators assisted about 4,000 people with disabilities. They helped people get back to work but they also helped them get food, medical attention and prescriptions, wheelchairs—you name it. They helped a shrimper fix his boat and provided cooking supplies to a woman on the Houma Nation so she could make money by selling food to workers at the nearby oil refineries.

“It was the right thing to do,” says Olsen of volunteering for the job that took him away from his family and the creature comforts of home. “It’s one of those things that in the moment you don’t think, you just do.”