Many of the drawings by the children from the Vietnamese Initiatives in Economic Training (VIET) summer programs convey the overwhelming, desperate conditions of their Hurricane Katrina experiences, and some express hope and gratitude.
Drawing by Van Nguyen, 8th grade. The drawing is on display with those of other VIET children’s work at the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans as part of an exhibit titled “Mama I Don’t Know How To Draw Sad – Art & Writings of Children of New Orleans” appearing through Dec. 3. The works were collected by Katrina survivors Becky Batchelor and Mandy Conger, inspired by their own children’s healing journeys. (Photo credit: Ruth Davis/American Red Cross)
In the tightly-knit New Orleans East community it serves, VIET is a trusted place where children feel safe to share their feelings.
Since 2002 parents have known VIET for its after school and summer programs that have provided tutoring, educational games, creative activities like assembling computers from kits and learning to play the piano as well as cultural and recreational activities. Over the years, VIET staff have bonded with the children, so providing the support they need to heal emotional damage from Hurricane Katrina was a natural extension of their services.
Through a creative partnership with the Louisiana Family Recovery Corps (LFRC), the American Red Cross and the Louisiana Office of Youth Development helped VIET bridge a critical funding gap so that neighborhood children had a summer program to return to. Additional funds extended to a transition program during the month of August for children coming back for the first time to be ready to start school in September. Through efforts like these, the Red Cross Hurricane Recovery Program (HRP) is collaborating with local Gulf Coast partners to stabilize communities and their families.
“The funds gave the children opportunity to express their feelings about what they have gone through,” said VIET Executive Director Cyndi Nguyen. “The program also gave students time to heal their sorrow of what they have lost.”
On July 15, a 199-trailer FEMA site opened on a plot of land owned by Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, across the street from the church. On Sept. 1, 2005, Katrina’s storm surge flooded the lot. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Rev. Vien Nguyen/Mary Queen of Vietnam Church)
Just eight months before the scheduled start of the children’s summer program, Cyndi was scrambling to figure out how to be there for the children when they came home.
She returned from evacuation in October 2005 to a neighborhood with no electricity or water service. State funds that VIET had acquired before Katrina were cut off because agency programs were not running in the immediate aftermath. There would be no opportunity to apply for even partial replacement funds for at least six months.
“My staff was still in Houston because their homes were damaged,” said Cyndi. “They came back in November because I asked them to.”
When Cyndi and her staff saw VIET families in the shelters, parents told her they would need the children’s programs. While not all of VIET’s 100-plus children would return by the 2006 summer break from school, children’s programs would be scarce. No more than 10 percent of the youth summer programs in New Orleans would be re-opened by the time school ended in May.
VIET children wait to be picked up by their parents after work.
(Photo credit: Ruth Davis/American Red Cross)
Cyndi resolved to make the programs happen with or without full funding. Then she learned of the grants available for existing summer youth programs through LFRC.
According to Don Burns of LFRC, who administered the summer youth program grants, VIET was awarded a grant because it “presented an excellent example of recovery through self-reliance and cooperative community effort—their program was going forward even if LFRC was not able to assist.”
LFRC Chief Executive Officer Raymond Jetson said that his organization is reaching out to restore Louisiana’s families by touching the lives of children.
“The LFRC is committed to helping our families regain their footing and establish quality lives, Jetson said. "We cannot and will not forget the children who were impacted in this disaster and that they, too, are in need of recovery. To fully recover, we must help them to recover for they are our future and our greatest asset.”
Lang Le, a community recovery specialist with the Red Cross HRP translates for Thao Nguyen, a VIET client who had three of her four children in the August program: “She expresses gratitude for whomever is helping the VIET program because it not only helps her children with their school work, it allows VIET to use its other funding to provide programs that help her.”
Like many parents whose children participate in VIET programs, Thao speaks Vietnamese and has been taking English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at the agency since it opened.
Zakiyyah Muhammad with son Kahlid and daughters Nadjah (in arms) and Zaynah moved three times before returning to New Orleans in August.
(Photo credit: Ruth Davis/American Red Cross)
Zakiyyah Muhammad registered her three oldest children in the VIET program after her mother, who had worked with Cyndi at a Head Start school, told her about it.
“When I was coming up, my mama exposed me to different cultures,” said Muhammad. “That’s what I wanted for my kids. VIET has different cultures and different programs. Ever since my kids have been coming here, they’ve been doing well at school.”
Muhammad’s son Kahlid, 7, likes the Tet Celebration—the Vietnamese New Year—best. “It’s like Halloween because we get to dress up,” said Kahlid.
During Katrina, Muhammad and her husband were considered essential personnel—she’s a nurse at Lakeland Hospital and he’s a city police officer.
“I had the kids with me at the hospital during the flooding and evacuation, but they were kept away from floors where all the hospital beds were crammed together,” said Muhammad.
When she finally evacuated with her four children, leaving her husband behind to do his job, they went from Atlanta to Iowa to Houston, staying with family first and then in an apartment until returning to their home on July 30. “Work still needs to be done, but the house is livable," she said.
Lang Le, community recovery specialist for the American Red Cross Hurricane Recovery Program in southeast Louisiana
Lang Le (back) with Thao Nguyen, son Paul and and daughter Y-Van. Lang Le’s serves as a bridge between the Vietnamese community and the Southeast Louisiana Chapter of Red Cross.
(Photo credit: Ruth Davis/American Red Cross)
Le Lang, community recovery specialist for the American Red Cross Hurricane Recovery Program in southeast Louisiana, serves as a liaison to the Vietnamese community in New Orleans.
“The reason I decided to work for the American Red Cross is witnessing the work Red Cross employees and their volunteers did for the community after the storm," she said.
"My family came home almost every weekend to clean up the house, and there were no restaurants available and the whole town looked dead. The only colorful object you saw in the community was the ERV [emergency response vehicle]. Do you remember as a kid, you heard the bell from the ice cream van, even if you were blocks away, you would feel excited and joyful about it? This was that same feeling.
”As a Red Cross community recovery specialist, I help bridge gaps between agencies and the community. Last week, representing Red Cross with The Road Home and Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, we held a Road Home presentation for the community to inform them of the program. I also help identify the needs that the communities are facing.
"I will be working to bring Red Cross CPR and First Aid training to the community, and encourage the community to involvement in recovery related programs.
"I've lived in New Orleans for 30 years, and when hurricane season comes, it's like nothing. This time, it's something, so if we want to continue living here, we have to be prepared. Red Cross and my job play an important role in this preparedness.”
VIET after school programs continue to serve 80 children, but enrichment programs to provide tutoring services are on hold until Cyndi can acquire the necessary funding.
“Right now I’m working at VIET only part-time to keep the program running on available funds,” said Cyndi. “I don’t want to have to let go of other staff.” She has taken on two other jobs, one fulltime with The Road Home, the Louisiana state government program to help displaced southern Louisianans re-establish a home, and a third serving as president of Einstein Elementary Charter School, where more than 420 students are enrolled. She hopes for the day that VIET will be fully funded so she can scale back.
For more information about the Red Cross response and ongoing support of hurricane survivors, visit the "Hurricane Recovery Program" section of RedCross.org.
Through its Hurricane Recovery Program (HRP) Youth Enrichment Activities Project, Red Cross committed funding to community partners in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama who were addressing a critical need for the emotional support and continued development of children impacted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. These partnerships resulted in more than 6,000 children having access to a variety of summer activities across the Gulf Coast.
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.