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History 2005-2009

By Sister Judith Brun, CSJ

In August 2005, at the request of the president of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, Sister Judith Brun, CSJ, began working to assist the families displaced by Hurricane Katrina who were living in shelters in the Baton Rouge area. She continued that work as they were relocated to the FEMA trailer villages.

Community Initiatives Foundation had its beginnings in the work of volunteer art therapists who served the children and families at Renaissance Village. Go to www.katrinaexhibit.org for more information. Sister Judith believed that one of the greatest unmet needs for the displaced residents was access to mental health care, especially for the children. The work of volunteer teams of art therapists allowed the children to communicate their dreadful experiences and offered immediate therapy which had powerful and positive results. In the summer of 2006, when the blue buses of the Children's Health Program, a partnership between the Children’s Health Fund and Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, rolled into Renaissance Village, the medical and mental needs of the children could be addressed on a more sustained basis. The volunteer art therapists continued to come and work with the children and collaborated with Children’s Health Program providing diagnostic services and training. CIF later provided a full time art therapist for Children’s Health Program. The needs still outweighed the services.

Though these brutal realities and the continued struggles of the displaced families put great demands on the work of CIF, they clarified the long-term needs and the necessity for strategic attention for this population as existing services were stretched in their services, especially to the thousands of fragile, potential new residents of Baton Rouge.

On May 31, 2008, FEMA closed Katrina trailer communities in Baton Rouge offering the FEMA-eligible households up to a year of transitional housing. Well over 100 households living in the trailer parks did not qualify for continued rental assistance. Without help, most would have become stranded and homeless as, at that time, they lacked the funds and the capacity to be self-supporting.

Sister Judith Brun, director of CIF, partnered with Randy Nichols, director, of the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless (www.homelessinbr.org) to address these needs. With both governmental and private funds, the partnership hired two housing specialists and a case manager to help with relocating these households as well as securing furnishings and addressing basic needs for these potentially homeless households with special attention to the children involved.

In December 2008, the CIF/CAAH partnership faced failure. It was clear that providing housing and basic care alone would not result in sustainability for the great majority of the households. The needs for wrap-around services and a robust mental health program were obvious and daunting. CIF added two mental health therapists and one case manager all of whom had worked on the mobile buses with the Children’s Health Program in the trailer villages and knew most of the households served by partnership.  CAAH added an additional case manager.  The partnership became known as Neighbors Keepers. Glory House, a center of service for 30 years in Melrose West (formerly Mall City), is now home for Redeemed Life Family Ministries.  Pastor Pollie Johnson welcomed Neighbors Keepers to Glory House and provided an initial location in a neighborhood where approximately 30% of NK’s clients live.

NK outgrew Glory House and now has, in the same neighborhood, three times the space and has filled every inch of it including a wonderful therapeutic play area for the children called Karla’s Place! Karla Leopold, the leader of the art therapy volunteers who made numerous trips Renaissance Village from their homes across the country, inspired the work of NK and continues to serve the displaced families by writing and speaking about her insights and experiences and advising the development of the current work.

The additional space allowed for hiring two additional case managers as the therapists were often needed to serve in that capacity which limited their therapy time but taught us that a seamless team approach to care is essential for helping families with multiple needs and holding all involved accountable. The new case managers were experienced with our population so the transition was smooth for the clients and saving for the original staff.

The ending of the FEMA rental assistance generated an initial volume of clients that taxed even our expanded staff as there were families who were not prepared to assume their rental payments and to sustain themselves when they became solely responsible. Some needed to be relocated to apartments where the rent was lower; others just needed emergency payments and budgeting help. Many had yet to find work and/or were still very depressed or disturbed and needed personal assistance and became longer-term clients. Truancy is still a problem for too many of the children and demands our constant attention. While this was a problem for some of these same families in New Orleans, not having any familiarity with their new home town and the schools complicates matters even more. One of the children we serve now attends Boys Hope, a residential program, and is on the honor roll at one of the city’s best schools. Two girls are applying for Girls Hope.

Through the efforts of our volunteer team, consisting of an attorney and a psychologist, a significant percentage of our original pre-homeless clients now qualify for disability payments. Most of these would have qualified pre-Katrina but lacked access to assistance in applying. These funds will make self-sustainability a realistic option. Several of our clients, who are awaiting their disability ruling or who have yet to apply, have no money. This means they have no personal or household supplies or paper products as these are not allowed as part of the food stamp program. They also have no funds for bus tickets for necessary travel. These are examples of needs NK seeks to meet in the journey of helping clients become self-sustaining.

Clients continue to return to work; most often on a part-time or day-labor basis. NK’s role is to assist clients to connect with existing training programs and employment services and these efforts are starting to be productive. Very few of our clients have cars. Though efforts are made to locate clients on the bus lines, transportation remains a challenge.

A new challenge is to meet the needs of a group we call “Children of the Children.” A growing number of parents were older children when Hurricane Katrina struck and now have children of their own. We give special attention to this cohort… our grandchildren!

Local city funding has provided for expanding our program to serve a limited number of non-disaster clients with a focus on single parent families with children who have no resources or network for housing. Priority is given to those who seem to have the capacity to become self-sustaining. Though the program is already close to capacity, recently there were 30 calls for assistance in one morning.

While there is special focus on assisting children of these households, it is understood that helping the families and the neighborhood is essential for long-term impact on the children.

“Experiences and mentors taught me that working with these children alone will not achieve the results that we hope for. Working with families in isolation won’t do it either. This is what drew me to establish a neighborhood center modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone (www.hcz.org). While our initial work is focused on the evacuees, the hope is to become a center of service in this, and even other, high-need neighborhoods. We are seeing some glimmers that the model is working; that our clients themselves are becoming neighbors keepers. They are re-establishing some of the social fabric they lost.”

“You can’t take care of the children if you don’t take care of the parents. And, if the parents don’t have stake in their neighborhoods, how can a community flourish?”

This is the question that inspired Neighbors Keepers to develop into a neighborhood center of care with the hopes that the neighbors themselves would become keepers of one another.

 

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