Kids first

New Orleans partnership is fashioned out of resilience and hope

It was raining when the plane landed in New Orleans, and rain is serious business in this city. The children get nervous, and adults have to work hard to soothe them. This day brought merely a chilling drizzle, nothing like the fury of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

Ellen Pinderhughes, chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development, with a young boy in a brand-new New Orleans day care center © AMANDA McCOY

During a cool, wet week in January, a trio of faculty members from the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development arrived in New Orleans to begin thinking about how Tufts’ expertise in helping kids thrive can assist in an area that hasn’t gotten much attention. While housing and jobs continue to be major priorities, good quality child care is the third part of the three-legged stool needed to bring New Orleans back. For working parents, a lack of child care translates into bleak employment opportunities.

Of the 271 child-care centers operating in Orleans Parish before Katrina, only 54, or 19.9 percent, are open now, according to Agenda for Children, a Louisiana child advocacy agency. Among those that are operational, some are serving fewer children than they had before the storm because of the difficulty in getting staff, many of whom have not yet returned home. At Kingsley House, a 110-year-old settlement house, there is a waiting list of 500 children for day care.

For most Americans, Katrina is something to notice in a headline now and then. But for the residents of New Orleans, the hurricane’s aftermath continues to serve up a daily struggle. Water lines mark pylons along roadsides and on houses, like giant bathtub rings. Signs tell more of the story. A sign outside a boarded-up Baptist church reads: “We’re Coming Back!” And a hand-written sign on one house reads: “Two cats removed.” The city is dotted with placards advertising contractors, roofers and a local business, called MoldSMART, which is now enjoying a heyday.

Of the 271 child-care centers operating in Orleans Parish before Hurricane Katrina, only 54 are open now. © AMANDA McCOY

Ties that bind
Lisa Schlakman, a graduate student at Eliot-Pearson with family ties to New Orleans, began thinking about how Tufts could help during one of her visits to the city. She spoke to Francine Jacobs, one of her child development professors who also teaches in the urban and environmental policy and planning department at Tufts. Jacobs made an initial trip to New Orleans last fall that was followed by visits to Tufts by Todd Battiste, an administrator from the United Way of Greater New Orleans, and Carol Wise, a United Way volunteer. The agency and Eliot-Pearson agreed they would form a partnership to assist families in New Orleans and to provide Tufts students and faculty opportunities for study and learning in the unusual circumstances the aftermath of Katrina provide.

Eliot-Pearson faculty members Ellen Pinderhughes, Betty Allen and Debbie LeeKeenan toured New Orleans in late January and met with United Way officials, community members, representatives from local colleges and child-care providers.

Wise drove the Tufts contingent through the city’s neighborhoods, both rich and poor, where wind damage from the hurricane and water damage from floods has left devastation smothered in mold and mud. She took them to four day-care programs, each in a different stage of rebuilding after suffering immense damage. Two were up and running, while two others continue to plod through the repairs. All four child-care centers are being led by people whose optimism, hope and perseverance shine through.

Scraping by
Gilda Duplessis Toledano, who has been running Gilda’s Day Care for 22 years, stood in the chilly, empty rooms that now comprise her building, which filled with four feet of water after the hurricane. New linoleum is down in a few areas, but mostly the building is bare floor and unfinished ceilings and framework. The cement in the courtyard has buckled, and outside, a broken stove sits amid a tangle of downed branches.

Graduate student Lisa Schlakman, who has family in New Orleans, came up with the idea that Tufts might be able to do something to help kids and families in the city. © AMANDA McCOY

Toledano and her husband, Warren Toledano, began renovations with money they received from the United Way, a small business loan and some insurance, but the funds have been used up now. When the couple can scrape together some more money, the work will start again.

When warnings came for Katrina, Gilda figured she’d ride out the storm, just as she has many other hurricanes. “I thought I’d stay through the storm and catch up on paperwork. But this one was not like the others.” She shook her head and laughed. The couple, who live two doors away from their day-care center, spent the first night in their attic, but couldn’t tolerate the heat. So they slept on the deck of their above-ground pool, using just-treated pool water for washing.

Warren, who is the day-care center’s cook, points to where the new kitchen will go. Here he will prepare red beans and rice, smothered pork roast, and one of the kids’ favorites, cheesy grits. “They love it,” he said. Eventually, Gilda’s will have 43 children, ages 6 weeks to 3 years. “We’re going to be OK,” said Warren. “I just want to see little feet around here.”

At the Royal Castle Child Development Center, owner Pearlie Harris said the original building had to be gutted. A soft-spoken woman, Pearlie walked through her brand-new, gleaming center filled with young children as she told her story to her guests. “The previous place was completely destroyed. I evacuated to my mom’s house in Lake Charles, La., and then [Hurricane] Rita hit, and we went to Jackson, Miss.” She stopped for a moment to address a youngster: “Elijah, c’mere and get your nose cleaned.”

Eliot-Pearson and United Way of New Orleans have committed to a “sustained partnership,” says Ellen Pinderhughes, left, shown here in New Orleans with faculty member Betty Allen and day-care provider Pearlie Harris. © AMANDA McCOY

Enter, Mr. Everett
She continued: “I came back in October [2005] and saw the day-care center was destroyed. It felt like 9/11. I was shocked, numb. It was hard to believe. At first I thought I wouldn’t rebuild because I had no insurance. But Mr. Everett, he evacuated with us. He’s a cook, and a carpenter and a roofer. He saw the water, and he came and said, ‘We can fix it.’ Mr. Everett worked a deal with me. I paid him a little at a time. I didn’t have to pay him all at once. I had to wait for a permit. I had to wait for sheetrock. Everyone is doing the same thing at the same time. Then one time people came in and took our tools. And Mr. Everett didn’t have enough manpower.”

But Mr. Everett, whose full name is Everett Dillon, got the work done. Before Katrina, Pearlie had a waiting list of 100. Although she could fill her center in minutes if she wished, she is adding a few more children each week to gradually get going again—all through word of mouth—again because of staffing problems.

The ‘home part’
Pinderhughes, associate professor and chair of Eliot-Pearson; Allen, a lecturer who specializes in teacher preparation; and LeeKeenan, director of the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School, also met with Sherry Guarisco, director of Louisiana’s Division of Childcare and Early Childhood Education. “We’re looking for any kind of support,” Guarisco told them. While [child care] centers are crucial, she said, a lot of child care was being offered in homes. “The home part of family home is critical. We can’t provide home care in a FEMA trailer.”

The plan now, Pinderhughes said, is to continue to discuss how best Tufts can help. “We are invested in doing something there, and we will continue to talk about what makes sense. This will be a sustained partnership.”

As a start, a group of Tufts child development students is planning to travel to New Orleans in May to rebuild the playground at Gilda’s Day Care. Said Pinderhughes, “We’re hoping that we’ll be able to plan activities to help students get a rich understanding of New Orleans culture—language, cuisine and music—so the students not only get a chance to make a contribution, but also take something away—an appreciation for that community and culture.”

LeeKeenan said she hopes to have a center-to-center connection so that children at the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School will have direct links to children in New Orleans, and can provide books and write letters to each other.

The hope, too, is to for Tufts to establish child-care training institutes in New Orleans and collaborate with Louisiana universities to provide training in mental health and child development to child-care providers.

While working on plans to best find ways to help in New Orleans, LeeKeenan said it’s important to remember that the experience is a two-way street. “It’s not just us going down,” she said. “We’re looking for a learning experience for everyone, for the people we work with there as well as for ourselves.”

Weeks after their trip, all three women are still impressed with what they saw and heard. Allen said she was touched by the warmth and hope she saw in the people she met. “They embraced us and were so pleased that we came. They told us their stories of survival and their plans to improve child care as they rebuild.”

“It was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had,” said LeeKeenan. “I felt people were warm, welcoming, resilient and hopeful—despite all these odds. I was very moved by the signs that said: “We’re home, don’t forget us, we’re rebuilding…Pray for the people of New Orleans.”

Marjorie Howard is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at