It’s hard for me to think positive,” said Lena Beard, sitting at the edge of a crowd of parents and children receiving awards for an art therapy program for Hurricane Katrina survivors at Renaissance Village, a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailer park in Baker, La.
Eric Walker, son of Lena Beard, poses next to his entry in the art fair. (Photo Credit: Amanda Mark/American Red Cross)
The New Orleans native who used to take great satisfaction from her work in the accounting department of Tulane University Medical Center now struggles to find a life for herself outside of the mobile home she shares with her sons Victor, 18, and Eric, 15.
Across the tent, Joseph Griffin watched his son Jamal, 11, win first runner-up honors in an art contest and shook his head approvingly. “This art therapy has helped him so much.”
Griffin lives with his wife and sons – Jamal and 15-year-old Jermaine – in a trailer down the road from Beard. But he’s counting the days until January, when the family will move to Georgia, where he recently bought a home with insurance money from his home in New Orleans.
One year after Hurricane Katrina, more than 500 families remain at Renaissance Village – one of the largest FEMA-organized temporary housing parks in the Gulf Coast. Some, such as Griffin, have concrete plans to leave Renaissance Village. Others like Beard are still struggling with the day-to-day realities of life post-Katrina – the realities that no longer include her job, house, husband or much of any part of her former life.
Beard and Griffin are typical of survivors in various stages of recovery, according to Amy Brassett, a community recovery specialist with the American Red Cross Hurricane Recovery Program.
Through the Hurricane Recovery Program, Brassett is trying to create opportunities for this community of circumstance to recover and grow together.
Father Worries that Hurricane Memories Won’t Fade
As he reflects on challenges after Katrina, Griffin worries most about his sons’ mental health. The family lived by the bayou in New Orleans; after the storm, he had to swim to safety – rafting his sons on a door he found. Their emergency supplies of food and water sustained them and several other families for days until they were rescued by helicopters. In the meantime, the boys saw the raw wreckage of Katrina firsthand – dead bodies, looting, fighting.
Jamal’s creation, a stylized Christmas tree made with salvaged items from his hometown of New Orleans, was a prize-winner. (Photo Credit: Amanda Mark/American Red Cross)
Financially, Griffin is getting by, working two jobs and tapping his savings to pay for daily expenses. He put away the disaster assistance that the family received from the Red Cross to cover future emergencies. His biggest concern is his sons’ welfare.
“I worry about Jamal,” he said. “He saw a lot, and he doesn’t like to talk about it.”
Recently, Jamal has begun to come out of his shell, thanks to an art therapy program sponsored by Rosie O’Donnell’s For All Kids Foundation. Therapists worked with children to create art projects out of scrap salvaged from New Orleans. Brassett believes these types of programs are crucial for children to continue to grow beyond their hurricane experiences.
“These kids need education, they need opportunities,” Brassett said. She is working with other non-profits and agencies in the area to add an education component to Renaissance Park. She’s also investigated transportation options for residents of the park, which is north of the Baton Rouge metro area.
Family’s Path to Recovery Isn’t Smooth, Straight
Beard also had an entry in the community art fair. Her wire sculpture was an artfully tangled mass of wires with no clear beginning or end.
“It’s how I felt,” she said.
Lena Beard translated “how I felt” after Katrina into a wire sculpture, using items salvaged from her storm-battered and flooded city, New Orleans. (Photo Credit: Amanda Mark/American Red Cross)
Beard’s sons also are involved in the arts. When he was five years old, Eric won his first award. She laughed, recalling the prize he won – a watch printed with a newspaper design – but then she sobered, “It was lost in the storm.
“I think about the things that are lost so much that it overwhelms me,” Beard said, shaking her head.
Beard talked about the home that she owned for more than 16 years, about her former job that filled her day and gave her a sense of accomplishment. She also talked about the months since Katrina, when she’d wake up before sunrise and fall asleep late at night – sometimes spending the entire day staring out the small window of her FEMA trailer.
It bothers Beard that she can’t forget Katrina and its ruinous effects on her life. Although a Harvard University study found that more than one-fourth of Katrina survivors have experienced “extreme psychological adversity,” Beard has felt very alone.
That feeling of isolation has eased since Brassett met Beard during one of her trips to Renaissance Park. The two have struck up a friendship.
“Amy has been great. She’s very straightforward and she said, ‘What’s really keeping you in?’ ” Beard explained.
Inspired by their conversations, Beard has taken practical steps toward recovery, such as participating in the art therapy program.
“One of the final steps is for Lena to get a job,” Brassett said. “I know she will and can because she’s a very motivated mother who is extremely competent.”
While Beard is encouraged, she worries that she hasn’t been a good enough mother to her sons over the past year.
“My sons are my sunshine in the day,” she explained.
Lena Beard decided to arrange a bingo night on Wednesdays in Renaissance Park. She hopes to meet more of her neighbors. (Photo Credit: Ruth David/American Red Cross)
The boys’ grades dropped after the family relocated and her younger son, Eric, hasn’t been able to attend the art school he loved in New Orleans. An art academy in California has awarded the youngster a scholarship for this school year, an offer he’s considering.
Beard, in the meantime, continues her recovery.
“I know that if I were to get out of the house and get into something – maybe help somebody, maybe reach out and take care of somebody like Amy’s taken care of me,” she pondered, “I might not be so tired and I might not think about myself so much. That could be a good change for me.”
Recently, Beard took her own advice and started a bingo night with one of her fellow neighbors. She calls numbers every Wednesday night.
Brassett will continue to work with families such as the Griffins and the Beards – families that have their own unique strengths and different rates of recovery.
“People need contact and they need to know that we care about them,” Brassett said.
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.