Hope Springs from Katrina’s Rubble

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New Orleans, La. — Dolores Whitfield returned to her battered shotgun home, one of the rectangular domiciles that were invented here, shortly after the flooding had receded last fall. It wasn’t until mid-December that she saw a child.

“There was something really creepy about a city with no kids,” recalls Whitfield, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southeast Louisiana.

Before Hurricane Katrina stuck one year ago, Whitfield’s agency oversaw 1,000 matches in the city and its outlying parishes. In January, only 15 remained.

Now the number is back to 248, with more Bigs on the waiting list, and Whitfield thinks her new university and school partnerships can bring the total back to 1,000 by December.

The determined efforts of BBBS Southeast Louisiana epitomize the mindset of New Orleans youth workers in the wake of the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita: hopes for bold renewal against a backdrop of daunting repairs and an uncertain future.

A year ago, the hurricanes and ensuing floods washed away the homes, churches and jobs of thousands of New Orleans families, especially those in its low-income areas. As the masses fled to such cities as Houston and Atlanta, the youth services infrastructure was drained of clientele and staff.

But stakeholders in all of the major sectors in the field – such as child welfare, juvenile justice and after-school programs – say the storms created a unique opportunity. With far fewer kids in most youth service systems and new leadership in the schools, they say, the time is ripe to reform a youth-service system known largely for its ineffectiveness.

For now, most youth have stayed away. The city estimates that its population stands at nearly half of its pre-storm total of 454,863, but the repopulation is due more to adult workers than to families with children. David Utter, director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, has heard that the youth population is down 80 percent. This much is known: The city expects about 25,000 youths to register for school this fall, compared with 65,000 a year ago.

A staggering amount of work remains, including repairing schools, detention centers and residential facilities, and recruiting new youth workers and teachers.

The task seems overwhelming, but the question appears simple: Can New Orleans turn adversity into an opportunity to better serve its youth?

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