NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Thousands of Starbucks Corp. employees are helping rebuild and beautify New Orleans neighborhoods as the coffee company seeks to distinguish itself during tough economic times as socially and environmentally conscious and more than just a place to buy designer drinks.

The company, which is holding its North American leadership conference in the city, says more than 10,000 store managers and others are working on dozens of projects in what’s considered to be one of the largest outpourings of corporate support, in terms of volunteer labor, since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005.

The work on Monday came as Starbucks announced its “Shared Planet” goals, focusing on areas from volunteerism to going greener and buying all coffee from producers adhering to strict standards. The goals, which president, chairman and chief executive Howard Schultz called aspirational, are to be achieved by 2015.

Schultz, who was painting houses in the Broadmoor neighborhood, told reporters that the effort builds on what Seattle-based Starbucks has long stood for. Given the tough national economic times, it’s important to give price-wary consumers “real value” and more than the coffeehouse experience, he said.

The company is launching “gold cards,” with consumer discounts. It’s also stressing community involvement among employees and in-house efforts to go greener – moving to reusable or recyclable cups, boosting recycling in stores and reducing water usage, for example.

Starbucks, in a sign of corporate belt-tightening, this summer announced plans to close 600 stores, including 13 in Louisiana.

“I also think that customers have many choices to make about all different types of products and services and a company that they trust, a company that has like-minded values to their own, is usually a company that they’re going to support,” he said.

Kristin Gisleson Palmer, with Rebuilding Together New Orleans, said Starbucks employees will work on various projects, including 31 houses, planting trees and helping to create an urban garden. She and other volunteer coordinators say it’s getting tougher to find people to help meet the still-great need for rebuilding assistance three-plus years after Katrina.

“I’ve never seen this magnitude from one corporation before, I’ll say that, in terms of the sheer numbers,” she said.