The laughter and shouts of more than 80 ‘New Orleans kids’ who filled the Baker recreation gymnasium were music to the ears of Camp Director Dewane Franklin. If the kids hadn’t been playing there or on the grassy, tree-lined fields outside, “they probably would have been in their trailers, fighting with each other – there’s just no space,” Franklin said.
For kids whose lives were dramatically changed by Hurricanes Katrina or Rita, Baker summer day camp was a place to go for 10 hours every weekday and be kids, away from cramped trailers and adults’ worries. They could share what they saw and how it felt to lose their homes and neighborhoods to wind and water. They could see and learn about their new community.
For parents faced with job and home searches, and other important tasks for restoring home and community connections, the camps provided peace of mind that included transportation.
“The camps gave the kids a safe environment,” said Darryl Hughes, assistant area supervisor for Baton Rouge Parks and Recreation Commission, known locally as BREC. “They could express themselves. They got out in the community to see what Baton Rouge actually had to offer.”
Sponsorship by the American Red Cross Hurricane Recovery Program provided the funding for a Youth Enrichment Activities Project grant administered by non-profit Louisiana Family Recovery Corps, making possible the BREC program that specially targeted the hurricane-impacted kids.
Hughes initiated the special, eight-week camp after parents at the largest Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailer park in Louisiana, located in Baker, expressed the need. The BREC program reached out to serve 45 teenagers and 42 six- to 12-year-olds from five FEMA trailer sites.
One year ago, some of these children fled to shelters, never dreaming they would not return to see their friends again. Some fought with their families to survive as their homes and neighborhoods flooded. Since then, many spent the school year away from parents, with family or friends in other towns. Many families had moved from one temporary housing situation to the next as they sought stability in the form of a job and a more permanent home.
For Franklin, who lives in the Mount Olive FEMA trailer park with many of the camp’s children, helping their healing was personal. A lot of these kids had been her neighbors in New Orleans East. She had taught many at the Head Start school there. Three of her own children participated in the BREC camp.
“We went through the same things,” said Franklin, who was rescued from her home by boat. “I lost everything. I left my home with just a t-shirt, a pair of shorts and the socks on my feet. I have no place to go with my five kids besides the trailer. I’m in a whole other world now.”
At Baker summer camp, Franklin and camp counselors took kids on field trips to the state capitol, library, movies, swimming, skating and bowling—many places these mostly poor children had never visited in their lives.
“It was my goal to expose them to a lot of things,” said Franklin. “I think the camp helped bring them back into the community, helped them focus again. It gave them something positive. The kids didn’t want to go home on the last day.”
The mother of one 12-year-old girl, Ashley, told Franklin that her daughter stopped running away from home when she started attending the BREC camp.
“A lot of things she wouldn’t tell to her mom, she would talk to me about,” said Franklin, who plans to stay in touch with Ashley and her mother.
As for her personal recovery, the New Orleans born and raised Franklin said that she is having trouble deciding where she’ll live permanently.
“When I first got here, I was tired of seeing the trees and the brick houses,” she said. “Now I love Baker. I think I want to go back [to New Orleans], but I’m scared. I’m not sure what I’m going to do. My kids are doing well at school here, they’re more focused.”
If there was one thing that the program had accomplished for the children, Hughes said he hoped it would give them “a sense of belonging to something…something they could bring home to their families afterward.”
Darryl Hughes has since signed up to get trained by his local Baton Rouge chapter as a Red Cross instructor.
Ruth Davis is with the Public Affairs team of the American Red Cross Hurricane Recovery Program.
The American Red Cross has helped people mobilize to help their neighbors for 125 years. Last year, victims of a record 72,883 disasters, most of them fires, turned to the nearly 1 million volunteers and 35,000 employees of the Red Cross for help and hope. Through more than 800 locally supported chapters, more than 15 million people each year gain the skills they need to prepare for and respond to emergencies in their homes, communities and world. Almost 4 million people give blood—the gift of life—through the Red Cross, making it the largest supplier of blood and blood products in the United States. The Red Cross helps thousands of U.S. service members separated from their families by military duty stay connected. As part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, a global network of more than 180 national societies, the Red Cross helps restore hope and dignity to the world's most vulnerable people. An average of 91 cents of every dollar the Red Cross spends is invested in humanitarian services and programs. The Red Cross is not a government agency; it relies on donations of time, money, and blood to do its work.