(Written for HP Canada employee newsletter)

A treasured photo can be a memento of a significant occasion, a record of a birth or marriage, the last connection to a late loved one. For families left homeless after the devastating hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, photos also represent memories of a life washed away by the storms.

No wonder an offer by HP to restore damaged photos brought out nearly 200 families clutching hundreds of precious photos, often soaked and seemingly irreparable. To think so, however, underestimates the enormous talent of HP employees, the great technology at our fingertips and the heart that drives us to help in the community.

Extreme Task, Extreme Conditions

It all happened in St. Bernard Parish just outside New Orleans. The producers of ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition show had heard about work done by a local photo restorer, Bryan Wagner. After touring the area, they decided to help the community as part of a special called “After the Storm.” They approached HP about restoring photos for two specific families for the episode that would air April 6.

HP did better than that, volunteering to restore all photos brought in during the three days the show was being filmed. Led by Bob Gann, HP Digital Imaging, a team of five HP volunteers used an SUV as a mobile restoration centre, outfitting it with a generator, HP computers, scanners and printers and internet access. They drove to New Orleans and set up in a shell of a building. There was little electricity in the area, no street signs, no homes, no businesses.

“That level of devastation certainly brought home that any problems we face are quite manageable,” says Rod Hardman, Category Business Manager, IPG Commercial Marketing for HP Canada, the lone Canadian on the on-site team.

Ask and HPers Will Volunteer

Rod was among more than 70 people who responded to Bob’s broadcast e-mail request for people willing to do photo restoration and able to travel to New Orleans.

“I have a fairly technical background, but I think what made Bob choose me was a throwaway comment I made about having been in the Canadian Army Reserve, so I don’t mind standing in the mud,” Rod says.

Three weeks later, with the support of his manager Peter Grady and IPG general manager Lloyd Bryant, Rod was in New Orleans for the whirlwind project.

The team arrived on Sunday night, February 19, set up Monday and put the HP ScanJet 4890 photo scanners to work on Tuesday. “One of the most moving experiences was that rather than just collect the photos, we had the families sit with us while we worked,” says Rod. “Officially, we were only supposed to do three or four per family, but I know we did much more.”

A Global Team Effort

Over Tuesday night and Wednesday, the team uploaded photos to an HP ProLiant high availability server cluster using a custom website created for the project. Some 300 HP employee volunteers from around the world downloaded and worked on one or two photos each, returning more than 350 restored photos.

Among the Canadians who did so were Amy John, Online Merchandiser for HP Shopping, and Brian Kneebone, Solution Architect for IPG.

“It was a great system, catalogued so you could find a photo you felt you had the skills and time to work on, check it out while you worked on it and upload it when you were done,” Amy says.

“Even though we worked remotely, it was a good feeling to be part of the project and able to offer some help,” says Brian. “There is a perception that everything is back to normal in New Orleans, but Rod shared the reality with us in regular dispatches. The part on the show about HP was brief but powerful; it showed the level of volunteerism that we have in HP.”

An Emotional Ending

The local team worked quickly to download and print the restored images on HP Photosmart printers. The “reveal” – the emotional moment when families get to see the results of the Extreme Makeover – happened Thursday night.

“The reveal alone was worth the price of going there,” says Rod. “I don’t think there was a dry eye in the place.”

In addition to the restored photos, the participating families received digital copies on a LightScribe archive CD and an account with HP’s online photo finishing service, Snapfish, already loaded with their images. Once the project wrapped up, HP also left the parish all the equipment and supplies, which Bryan Wagner will use to keep the restorations going.

“HP employees put their hearts into this project, and we also realized that HP technology is pretty amazing,” says Rod. “What also hit home during the experience is that we all need to think about copying and storing our family photos offsite in case of fire or flooding. It’s a whole lot easier scanning now than trying to restore later.”