Friday, July 07, 2006

Katrina's Children

Trainer Olayeela Daste, far left, demonstrates some musical instruments that caregivers can use to promote healing in children.

Mercy Corps Hurricane Katrina Stories; submitted by Tanya Zumach, Senior Web Marketing Manager

Using funds donated by thousands of supporters, Mercy Corps is helping restore a collapsed system of crucial support services for youth in the Gulf Coast. One element of the initiative, Comfort for Kids, reaches out to educators, social workers, and health professionals, giving them the tools they need to minister to traumatized youngsters.

Trainer Olayeela Daste asks the participants in one session to think about how to re-create for children the "pillars of security" - people, routine, ritual, and place. For example, establishing a predictable routine of story times and other activities goes a long way toward restoring a sense of order. For younger children, playing with construction toys can provide a sense of rebuilding their environment.

For children of all ages, workbooks provide a powerful tool for processing traumatic experiences and moving on. Mercy Corps is providing thousands of copies of two publications, My Hurricane Story and My Katrina and Rita Workbook, to schools and health care workers in Louisiana and Mississippi. Together with a curriculum, "What Happened to My World," the resources guide children and adults in the healing process.

Rebuilding the ravaged Gulf Coast isn't simply a matter of bricks and mortar, plywood and stucco. Like the splintered houses and barren landscape, the emotional well-being of the area's residents - especially the children - must also be carefully repaired.

My Hurricane Story

8-year-old Nicholas lost his house, his pet turtle and his friends during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Writing about it helped, he says.
Photo: Dan Sadowsky/Mercy Corps

Here at D'Iberville Elementary School, a few miles from where the Gulf of Mexico laps the sands in front of Biloxi's casinos, nearly every kid has a hurricane story. And the prevailing theme is loss.

Eight-year-old Nicholas lost his house, two sets of friends, his pet turtle and the company of both parents, who separated in the aftermath of the storm.

Nicholas and his classmates at the local Boys & Girls Club were encouraged, through Mercy Corps' Comfort for Kids program, to write essays about how the hurricane affected them.

"I wrote about my pets, my friends, how I had to move back and forth," says Nicholas, a puckish, freckle-faced blonde who broke away from a frenzied game of duck-duck-goose to talk about the experience.

Tara Haney, the D'Iberville site director, says about half the kids lost everything in Hurricane Katrina, which leveled trees and houses and piled up billions worth of damage across coastal Mississippi. Most of the youngsters at D'Iberville are coping better than one might expect, Haney says, but the essays did raise red flags for a few of the kids. The stories were "heartbreaking" to read, she says, but a healthy release for the kids to write. "They were able to get it all out," says Haney.

Nicholas, who is in second grade, had a lot to say. "The hurricane made me move to North Carolina, away from my friends," he says, recounting what he wrote. "And then my new friends in North Carolina, after the hurricane was gone I had to leave them, too."

What's more, the storm coincided with his parents' divorce. Since returning to the Gulf Coast, he's lived with his mom and siblings in a FEMA trailer on the property of a family friend in the town of Gautier, Mississippi, about 15 miles east of D'Iberville. His dad remains in North Carolina.

Writing about his ordeal helped work out some of his feelings, Nicholas says. "At first it was depressing and sad. But if you don't let out your emotions, you're going to explode. So it helped."

Excerpts from essays written by Boys and Girls Club participants through the Comfort for Kids program:

Girl – Age 8
For Katrina I was at my house. Hurricane Katrina hurt our house. It was flat like a pancake really, but I wish I did not stay. I feel really bad about it. It is hard for me. I don’t feel good right now. I wish the hurricane has not come here.

Girl – Age 12
Hurricane Katrina affected us and our Boys & Girls Club. My house and my Boys & Girls Club are gone. My school is a bunch of trailers by the school. The Boys & Girls Club is in the cafeteria. I am living in a trailer as big as a room. Every day we have to use Porti-Pottys. I was very sad because I lost my cats. There is like not one house that is in my neighborhood that is livable.

Boy – Age 13
Hurricane Katrina has affected my life and the Boys & Girls Club Pass Christian Unit in a whole lot of ways. It has affected my life by taking my house and I don’t have anything I used to have such as my old clothes and my scrapbooks. I also lost a lot of pictures of my friends who are no longer here.

Girl - Age 11
My neighborhood was destroyed. It left so many people without family, and houses, and jobs. Then to make it worse, we had to live without TV and water. It made me realize that what I have today could be gone tomorrow. I am thankful that I did not lose my family or friends. Without my family I couldn’t have gotten through the storm. They calmed me down when I got upset.

Boy – Age 11
Katrina affected my life because I had to move. I did not like most of the changes. A lot of things happened to me. My school changed, my house changed, my friends changed and also my family.

Girl – Age 10
When I was hit by the hurricane many things happened, and many things changed. Many of my family died. All of my friends were gone. People say that if you believed in luck your house would still be there, but they were wrong. My house and everything in it was gone. So now we live in a FEMA trailer and we are lucky we are one of those that don’t have to live on the street.

How YOU can raise money and volunteer for the Gulf Coast

Guest blogger Corinne Berkseth and members of her church, Good Shepherd Lutheran in Alexandria, Virginia, raised over $33,000 between December 2005 and April 2006 to rebuild a home destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. With four other Good Shepherd “rebuilders,” Corinne recently joined volunteers rebuilding homes in the low-income area of East Biloxi, Mississippi and hopes their story will inspire others to help. Here are their tips for getting started with raising money or giving time.

When my church, Good Shepherd Lutheran, decided to raise the $25,000 needed to rebuild a home in East Biloxi, we did it to help one, specific family. But in the process, we became part of a broader effort to rebuild the community of East Biloxi. It has been, and continues to be, an amazing experience. Sound like something you or your organization would like to be a part of? If so, consider traveling to Biloxi to provide hands-on construction help, making an individual donation, or organizing an effort to raise $25,000 and sponsor the rebuilding of a home. You will rebuild much more than you can imagine. You will bless a family, a community and yourselves even more!

How to Raise Funds

Think raising $25,000 sounds like a daunting task? We did it, and YOU can, too! Maybe these ideas will kick off your own campaign.

• At Good Shepherd, we formed a committee of about 10 people and coined our house sponsorship effort Rebuild, Renew, Rejoice! We developed a logo and used it with the theme consistently to brand the effort.
• We kicked off our outreach in mid-December with a letter to congregation members and kept them abreast of progress (including heartfelt thank yous!) with announcements in the church bulletin and at services and through a follow-up letter. Individual member donations were a BIG part of our success.
• We encouraged people to be creative in supporting the effort—one member raised $525 (and a $500 company match) through a “pay to wear jeans to work” day at her office. Another asked for donations to Rebuild, Renew, Rejoice! in lieu of birthday gifts.
• The free will offering at a popular church event benefited Rebuild, Renew, Rejoice! and kids in a member’s neighborhood raised $130 by holding a car wash.
• We partnered with Crusader Lutheran in Rockville, Maryland, where we presented the effort during a Lenten dinner program. They collected donations over a couple of weeks and added nearly $500.
• We applied for matching funding through Thrivent Financial for Lutherans.
• Our Sunday School leaders got the children involved and helped them learn about the rebuilding efforts by “building” banks. Their bank collections were then contributed to Rebuild, Renew, Rejoice!
• We held a very successful community silent auction in Old Town on April 1. It was a big effort, but well worth it!
• Although we did not know whose home we would rebuild until the very end of our campaign, we kept the focus on providing concrete help to one specific family. We also contrasted the time that had passed with the need that is still so great on the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans.

The response and generosity of our congregation and our community was more than we could have imagined. We surpassed our goal, raising over $33,000 by our target date of Easter Sunday. These activities worked for us but are just the beginning.

What will you do?

A Katrina Volunteer's Story

Guest blogger Corinne Berkseth recently joined volunteers rebuilding homes decimated by Hurricane Katrina in Biloxi, Mississippi. Her team, which was organized by Habitat for Humanity of Northern Virginia, rebuilt the home of “Ms. Helen.” Corinne calls the experience the “most incredible and rewarding experience I’ve ever had.”

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can
change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."- Margaret Mead, Anthropologist/Scientist (1901- 1978)

Day 1: Arrival—Beach Boulevard

The people of Mississippi are so gracious and so grateful for the help of strangers. We were still at the airport when we were first thanked for coming and helping. I’ve never heard the simple words “thank you” sound as sincere and heartfelt. So began the journey Robbie, Sam, Jaime, Blake and I would travel over the next week plus.

En route from the airport to Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church, whose convent would serve as our Biloxi home, we drove Beach Boulevard/Highway 90. I had volunteered in Biloxi in September 2005 mucking out flood-damaged homes. Though many had told me there was still much work to be done, I was saddened to see how similar the landscape looked eight months later. It’s not that work hadn’t been done--the massive debris piles that were everywhere in September were all but gone. And yet all along the drive were twisted metal remnants of restaurant signs, bare concrete foundations, apartments, hotels, homes with gaping holes and huge trees pulled out by their root balls. Many months after the storm, the enormity of the Katrina disaster was, and still is, overwhelming. I shared my thoughts with my traveling companions and then tucked them away, not knowing what to do with them,

Day 2: First Day of Construction

Robbie, Jaime, Sam, Blake and I were working on Ms. Helen’s home because our church, Good Shepherd Lutheran in Alexandria, Virginia, had raised money to sponsor the rebuilding of a specific house in Biloxi, through Habitat for Humanity of Northern Virginia (HFHNV). HFHNV estimates the cost of rebuilding a home like Ms. Helen’s—severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina and stripped to the studs and foundation—at $25,000. As we traveled through East Biloxi that next morning, heading to Ms. Helen’s home, I had much the same reaction as I’d had on Beach Boulevard yesterday. By the looks of the neighborhood, there are many other homes in need of sponsorship. But, these thoughts were quickly buried in the activity of stepping into the gutted house, meeting Ms. Helen, and commencing rebuilding construction.

Our house (construction) leader, Hap, a seasoned volunteer from Habitat for Humanity of Northern Virginia, gave us an overview and safety demonstration on all the power tools. Then, he divided us into small groups and distributed construction tasks. Robbie and I were teamed with Donna, another dedicated HFHNV volunteer, who taught us how to frame our first wall (albeit a small one) before lunchtime—wow!

Days 3-33: Construction

Volunteers came and went during a five-week period. Over the next six to 30 days, with a variety of Northern Virginians and Air Force volunteers from nearby Keesler Air Force Base, we framed more walls, sealed gaps between the walls and floors to inhibit the spread of fire (should one ever happen), reinforced floor supports, helped redo pipes and plumbing, patched holes, replaced all the windows, hung insulation and drywall, and much more. From our starts as construction novices, we learned to use a variety of power and other tools, and then were able to actually teach others.

We also got to know our homeowner. Ms. Helen is a widow and a Head Start teacher one year from retirement. She was facing major home repair costs, and soon, a fixed income. The floodwaters reached nearly eight feet high in her home and she lost everything save a few mementos she salvaged from the mud left behind. Since November, she has lived in a FEMA trailer, parked beside her ruined house.

Ms. Helen told us about her feelings of hopelessness as she saw a few houses around her being rebuilt. She raised ten children in this home; it was the only home she’d known for years. Now it was merely a shell and the prospects for rebuilding on her own were grim. But she drew personal strength from prayer and said our efforts were a Godsend. Getting to know her and being able to help in this critical, personal way is the gift we continue to receive.

As a special way of saying thank you, Ms. Helen treated us to home cooked, southern-style lunches on several days—red beans and rice, gumbo, and more—yum! It was a wonderful way of showing her appreciation. Approximately six homes were being worked on during the May construction trip, and other homeowners fed us too.

As the days came and went, we participated in the progress made on rebuilding “our” home, delighting to show Ms. Helen each day what had been accomplished. Many of us were not used to long, hot days (approximately 7:30am-5:00pm, though the time flew by) of manual labor. But it was so satisfying—milestones you could see and photograph and show the homeowner. By the time I returned home, some drywall had been installed on the ceilings and the house was ready for the open-frame and plumbing inspections. The inspections have since passed, drywall has been hung, and the paint Ms. Helen chose is going on the walls. Her home will be completed soon—I couldn’t be more excited for her or to have been a small part of the effort.

Day 5: BBQ at Jerry and Glenda’s

I’m backing up here to return to my tucked away sadness for the rebuilding progress yet to be made in Biloxi, and especially in East Biloxi. These feelings had been in the back of my mind amidst all the construction activity.

At the end of workday number five, we trekked the short distance to Jerry and Glenda’s for a BBQ. It was for me a reunion of sorts. Jerry and Glenda’s home was one of the houses my group had helped gut in September. One of their only belongings to survive Katrina was their barbeque barrel, and they had barbequed for us then too. Our small group had gathered with them on the front porch of their unlivable home where we enjoyed Jerry’s fabulous BBQ and the fellowship of shared work amidst the seemingly hopeless situation they faced back in September.

This night, on day five, was a festival. Loads of their friends and family gathered in the yard, there was a tented roof over a banquet table of food crowned with Jerry’s famous BBQ, a DJ spun music, and a celebration was brewing. Jerry and Glenda were in the process of moving back into their home, and I saw in that gathering the progress that was happening in East Biloxi.

And the progress was springing up around East Biloxi. During the BBQ, I visited with Mr. Price and could see his home across the street—renewed and neat, with a welcoming wreath hanging on the front door. His was the first home I had worked on in September—I had helped to power wash mold out of the gutted interior. It had been the day we had enjoyed BBQ at Jerry and Glenda’s. I was struck by the full circles these two homes, and homeowners, had traveled. And I was encouraged by the progress that was happening, that is happening.