Neighborhood house assists Katrina survivors
Mar. 7, 2008
NOTE: Photographs available at http://umns.umc.org.
By Susan J. Meister*
EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. (UMNS)-Bonita Jethro was born and raised in East St. Louis and remembered Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House from her childhood.
As an adult, she started a new life in New Orleans. "It was a great move for me," she said. "I was a head baker for Piccadilly Restaurant for 14 years."
Then Hurricane Katrina blew in, sending Jethro back to the city of her youth. She encountered the Neighborhood House again-but this time as a ministry reaching out and assisting survivors of the hurricane.
The house is a national mission institution of The United Methodist Church. It also is one of 12 organizations in nine states that received grassroots grants from the Emergency Services Office of the United Methodist Committee on Relief to assist Hurricane Katrina survivors across the United States. About $2.3 million was available for the hurricane recovery grants due to the generosity of United Methodists.
"The Neighborhood House offers a prime example of an existing community-based ministry that stretched itself to do effective disaster response," said Tom Hazelwood, UMCOR's domestic disaster response executive.
"The ministry has a nearly 100-year history of assisting families in the Metro East area. So when Katrina survivors began to arrive, they were ready and willing to step in with short-term relief services and case management for long-term recovery."
Ministry greets survivors
The Neighborhood House specializes in social, economic and neighborhood development services aimed at meeting the special needs of children, families and the elderly in East St. Louis and St. Clair County.
When Katrina hit landfall on Aug. 29, 2005, the agency began to raise funds and collect items to send to those affected on the Gulf Coast. But the staff quickly realized that the disaster was arriving in their own backyard. Jethro and many other families were evacuating to a familiar place.
"Within a week, we became aware that hundreds of individuals and families were coming up from Louisiana and Mississippi to stay with family and friends here," said William Kreeb, executive director. "That presented a problem. The majority of the families that were providing emergency housing for their relatives were already living below the poverty line themselves."
Neighborhood House staff quickly shifted their focus and joined with other churches and agencies to form the St. Clair County Disaster Relief Coalition. "The families we met didn't come through the local airports, where state and local disaster relief organizations had time to plan and put services in place," Kreeb said. "Our folks came by car or van or bus, at all hours of the day. There was no way to know how many families who needed services were coming or when. We just had to be ready."
Denita Jacox and other staff members took the lead in providing emergency transportation, food, clothing and shelter until the families could connect with FEMA and other governmental organizations.
Moving from relief to recovery
After the initial emergency phase, it became clear that survivors would require assistance in pursuing long-term solutions to re-establish their lives and find permanency and stability within Illinois communities. The UMCOR grassroots grant provided the ministry with resources to help move families into recovery.
In October 2005, Shirley Ellington joined the staff at Neighborhood House as its Hurricane Katrina coordinator. She joined ongoing efforts to connect survivors with direct services and began to network with other agencies on a long-term response.
"The biggest challenge the survivors faced was finding jobs in this area," Ellington said. "They came from a tourist/agricultural mindset to an industrial/corporate job market. They needed education and job skills. The people also dealt with a lot of depression."
Ellington and other Neighborhood House staff members tenaciously reached out into the neighborhoods to find and assist survivors. Jethro was impressed that the agency knocked on her door and asked, "What are your needs?"
"And they reminded us, 'You are not alone.' And they are still there for us," she said.
Jethro is doing well after facing some serious health issues since last September and is raising three grandchildren, ages 12, 13 and 14. Her older son Greg is in culinary school at the local community college, funded through Neighborhood House.
Ellington reported that 500 individuals and families were assisted by the ministry.
Ellington approached long-term recovery with survivors through the case management model, a family-by-family, problem-solving approach advocated and perfected by UMCOR and other agencies over years of disaster response.
This approach encourages each family to write and implement its own recovery plan. Case managers walk alongside the family to help negotiate the labyrinth of paperwork for insurance and government services and to access other resources.
Case managers also offer a caring presence to individuals and families during the difficult process of recovery. The spiritual and emotional help they provide sometimes far outweighs the financial assistance.
This was true for Donna Meyers, who affectionately referred to herself and Ellington as "the boohoo crew."
"It is humbling to be on the receiving side," Meyers said. "I really worried about everything. Shirley was someone to talk to."
Meyers' husband's business in Louisiana was destroyed. The family left their homes and came to the Metro East area because "it was a 10-hour drive (to a niece's home) instead of 19-hour drive to Ohio."
She, her husband, her two teenage children, her mother and her mother-in-law thought they would only be in town for a week, but Ellington and the Neighborhood House stepped in to help the family find a house. They helped pay for Meyers to be recertified to work as a nurse in Illinois and helped with paperwork and other financial challenges.
"Shirley has been such a blessing," she said. "Without her, I don't think I would have made it."
*Meister is the domestic disaster response correspondent for UMCOR.
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