A LEARNING EXPERIENCE -
I worry that once the children are dispersed throughout Baton Rouge and other locations with resources in far to reach places, that the solid ground beneath them will shift. I've fallen in love with these children, and within the haven of the after school program, they have taught me lots about resilience and joy.
Mary LeBlanc, the director of the education program, is working her tail off to make the after school programs accessible to them in their new locations. There's talk of relocating Rosie's trailers and the playground in the Gardere region where many of the children will be, and Baker will also have after school programs available.
Photos taken by the children can be seen at http://seemeseenew.blogspot.com
BAKERAt first, after hundreds of New Orleans children settled into FEMA trailers in the small town of Baker, it was a case of the 504s against the 225s.
Many of the 504s arrived at Renaissance Village trailer park angry and sad, their lives abruptly upended.
The 225s watched, sometimes warily.
Describing the children by their area codes was a way to evoke the palpable divide between the newcomers, exiled to this rural corner of Baker, and the children who had lived there all their lives. It took months, in some cases years, for the 504-225 distinctions to fade.
"Today I don't think you would really know who the kids from New Orleans are," said Sarah Henry, the principal of Progress Elementary School, which many of the Renaissance Village students still attend.
In some respects Renaissance Village, near Baton Rouge, serves as an unintentional social experiment: A captive audience of extremely poor children and families was provided an array of social services, all within walking distance: Early Head Start, Head Start, an after-school program, a teen center, counselors and health care. Most of the programs would still be available to the families if they lived outside the trailer park gates, but it would not be so easy, or obvious, to take advantage of them.
When FEMA announced that Renaissance Village would close May 31, it sent many of the families still there into a panicked frenzy to find affordable permanent housing.
"From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., you had a safe place to bring your child, which gives you the time to get skills to improve yourself," said Cynthia Vance, the program manager for kindergarteners through fifth-graders at the park. "It was free and within walking distance. I think that will be one of the reasons a lot of residents might wait until the last minute to leave."
Crucial support network
In many respects Renaissance Village represents a failed response to the 2005 storms and flooding: Hundreds of the poorest of the poor -- almost all from New Orleans -- were placed in trailers, indefinitely, as Baton Rouge-area shelters began to close down. Residents were far from relatives, friends or other support networks. No one had any real plan for getting them out of the trailers and into homes.
If there's a silver lining to Renaissance Village, many residents and educators say it can be found in the support system that has gradually emerged for the approximately 100 school-age children still living there. It's a support system rooted in row of simple buildings housing the Head Start and after-school programs and located in the back of the park.
As the families disperse, residents and workers at the park are trying to preserve some of that support network, even as the trailers themselves get forklifted away: Teachers in the after-school program regularly drive across town before dawn to pick up former trailer park children who want to continue at current schools. Parents of school-age children say they are planning to stay in the Baker-Baton Rouge area. Local leaders are talking about trying to replicate some of Renaissance Village's programs for children in the Gardere neighborhood of Baton Rouge, where many of the families are moving.
"I believe those buildings should be taken out of the trailer park and put somewhere where they could do the most good in Baker or Baton Rouge," said Sam Sammartino, disaster response director for the Diocese of Baton Rouge. "You could bring in child-advocacy groups, people who deal with families in crisis, mental health counselors. There is a spectrum of things that go on in those buildings that could help people move on with their life and out of poverty."
Wanda Galmon's family highlights that potential.
Every morning Galmon, 25, walks her two youngest children to Early Head Start and Head Start buildings on the opposite end of the trailer park. There they soak up early reading and social skills in a place where their mother can easily visit. Three of Galmon's middle children attend nearby Progress Elementary School, including Timothy, a mischievous, talkative 8-year-old who gets into less trouble at school than he did a year ago. During the months the family lived in Houston immediately after the storm, Timothy refused to speak and earned all D's and F's in school.
The oldest, Leonard, 11, attends Crestwood Middle School. Leonard, always bright, has grown into an older brother with fatherlike tendencies, who can often get his five younger siblings to sit down and read. Between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., the four older Galmon children work on homework in the after-school program and then run sack races or play dodgeball until sunset. Galmon, who has worked several fast-food jobs and is seeking another, already has strong reason to believe her children will surpass her 10th-grade education level. One afternoon Leonard returned from school with mixed feelings about a challenge posed by his teacher. She suggested the boy, an aspiring scientist, enter a science fair for Crestwood's seventh- and eighth-graders, even though he is just a sixth-grader. The boy wanted to examine airplane speed, but he worried he didn't have the time and the supplies.
That afternoon a counselor at the trailer park took Leonard to buy supplies. She stayed with him through the evening as he worked feverishly to create the display, building model airplanes and then using their size, shape and diameter to calculate velocity. He finished near midnight.
The next day, his science project won first place at Crestwood.
Although not all children have excelled like Leonard, the principal at Progress and several trailer park workers say they have seen several of the youngsters thrive with the extra stability and support. Initially, Henry said, many of the Renaissance Village children attended only sporadically, and their grades and behavior reflected the trauma they had been through.
Now, she said, their attendance, grades and behavior are on a par with the rest of the students. "Academically, they have really kind of shocked me," she said.
Just as the new bonds strengthened, though, they are ending.
With the deadline looming and through the help of her mother, Galmon found a Baton Rouge home for her family for $865 a month. Trusting her mother, she signed a lease without seeing the place herself.
Though Galmon plans to visit family in New Orleans regularly, she has no desire to move back, worried about crime and that the city will not be the same.
"It wouldn't feel like home anymore," she said. "I've gotten used to it here."
Galmon attended Woodson Middle School and Cohen High School in New Orleans, dropping out after her sophomore year. She had Leonard when she was 13. The mother has serious health problems, including chronic asthma, but always planned to look for a job at a fast-food restaurant in preparation for when the FEMA-HUD rent subsidies for former trailer park residents end in 2009. Last week, she accepted a job as a housekeeper in a large hotel.
She cannot wait to leave the trailer, where she lacks the wiggle room even to make up the bed. But weeks before the scheduled move, Galmon said she knew little about her new neighborhood or how to get around Baton Rouge, by bus or car. She was unsure where her youngest children will attend Head Start, or where the schools her older children will attend are located.
She has few friends in Baton Rouge.
Such uncertainties frighten the staff who work with the families at Renaissance Village.
"What's the difference between May 31 and Aug. 31 if we can make sure residents are in permanent housing and they will be able to stay there?" said Arcenia Crayton, who runs the teen center.
FEMA officials have described the situation as an opportunity for flood victims to marshal self-reliance, help from caseworkers and the financial boost from the HUD-FEMA Disaster Housing Assistance Program to get on with their lives.
Many are. Every day at Renaissance Village, newly vacant trailers are towed away and children scatter along with their families.
Galmon learned in mid-April that she can move into her new home in a week.
"I'm ready to go," she said.
Though desperate to leave, she decided to sleep with her family in the trailer a little longer, through April at least, so they will not have to leave their schools mid-month.
Watching the six children play outside the after-school center one evening around supper time, she lingered before heading back to the trailer. Leonard bragged about his big new school binder. Timothy, the moodiest of the children, smiled. Lorenzo, the youngest, stopped pestering her, at least for a few moments, and scampered off to play with the big kids.
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Sarah Carr can be reached at email@example.com or at (504) 826-3497.