Seven years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Lower 9th Ward, the area's residents are still struggling to rebuild. A walk around the neighborhood -- bounded roughly by the Industrial Canal, St. Bernard Parish, Claiborne and St. Claude avenues -- reveals patches of homes, beautifully rebuilt with clean porches and manicured lawns. But never far away are thousands of blighted properties and vacant lots that cast a depressing shadow.
There isn't a single grocery store or drug store. Gas stations are the only places within walking distance that residents can go to for milk and other staples. Many families, particularly the elderly, depend on sporadic public transit to take them into St. Bernard Parish or the Upper 9th Ward to shop, visit a doctor or take their clothes to a laundromat.
But in the midst of this lingering malaise, something wonderful is happening at the corner of St. Claude and Caffin avenues inside a renovated Walgreens drug store: All Souls Church and Community Center is running a free after-school tutoring program that offers hope, structure and sustenance for 80 neighborhood students four days a week.
Jacqueline Yang, director of All Souls Church and Community Center, says that rather than wait for broad government or private sector support, nonprofit organizations such as hers are attempting to bring the neighborhood back to life one family at a time.
From about 3 until 7 p.m., All Souls provides neighborhood children with tutoring and homework help, orchestra lessons, cooking lessons and dinner. A van service picks up the students from school and drops them off at home after dinner.
"Many of the students in our program attend M.L.K. Charter School and their parents work late into the evening," Yang said. "If kids can finish their homework and get in the routine of doing their homework, they start to understand the value of education, and education is the number one thing where we can break the poverty cycle."
A structured environment
Breaking that cycle starts with providing the students with structure. The building has 10 rooms, with three serving as administrative offices for the staff.
There are two large halls where program participants meet with instructors and volunteers for their homework sessions. Program such as this, Yang is convinced, steers children away from trouble in their free time.
"They may just go outside and play, or they're going to go outside and deal drugs or get into trouble," said Yang. "At All Souls we are trying to prevent that and give them a foundation through finishing their homework and then having enrichment activities like cooking, music or sports."
The community center has a small staff with three full-time instructors who have taught English, mathematics and music on a college level at the University of New Orleans, Loyola University and Tulane University. The rest are former public school teachers, parents and volunteers from around the country.
Elizabeth Thomas was an English professor at UNO for more than 20 years and is now on the full-time staff as a tutor and librarian.
On a Tuesday afternoon she's sitting at a table between Jalil Gioustovia and Jayzon Washington, with books, pens, pencils and tablets sprawled across it. She's inside the library, where the bright yellow walls are covered with a large mural that was painted by the children.
The library has a complete catalog system with more than 1,200 books and is searchable by a computer in the corner of the room. It was all donated and set up by Trinity Wall Street Episcopal Church in New York City.
"I mentioned to them that the students could benefit from having a library and they came down in four teams to help me set it all up," said Thomas. "That's phenomenal to me. Trinity Wall Street has been a huge supporter of not only All Souls but this tutor program as well."
Both Jalil and Jayzon are reading on a seventh-grade level, which Thomas attributes to the amount of time and effort they put into their homework.
"Jalil's mom called me when he got his first-quarter report card and wanted to thank me for my participation in the tutoring sessions," said Thomas. "I felt like I couldn't take any of the thanks because he does so much on his own, and I'm really just being his support system."
MLK Charter School students benefit most
About 90 percent of those who attend the program are students of MLK Charter School. Although the school has no affiliation with the program at All Souls, the students are reaping the benefits.
Besides making sure the students complete their homework, the program provides various boot camps that teach the children to be more responsible.
One session, paid for with a grant from Second Harvest Food Bank, provides healthful meals to the students each day. The afternoon snack and dinner is served in a large, fully-equipped cafeteria and kitchen area.
After early particpants in the program left the cafeteria a mess, Yang devised a boot camp that taught the children how to clean up after themselves. Students now not only clean their area and the grounds of the center once dinner is completed, they also help Second Harvest unload and test the quality of the meals brought in each day.
"Kids had to learn to recycle trays, sweep the floor, take out the trash and take care of your area," Yang said. "That's what we're promoting here, and it's a huge responsibility for the students here."
Older students in the program, mainly seventh- and eighth-graders, also participate in a Second Harvest program called Cooking Matters. Three nutritionists take the students to the grocery store once a week and let them choose ingredients for healthy meals to prepare for themselves and their families.
"They've made turkey sausage and chicken gumbo, veggie quesadillas and hummus," Yang said. "These are types of food that they aren't exposed to here."
Strike up the band
Another enrichment program at the center is the Youth Orchestra of the Lower 9th Ward.
The orchestra is composed of 42 students ranging from 6 to 14 years old. They've been together for about two years and have had opportunities to perform throughout the city with the Tulane University Orchestra.
They recently traveled to Syracuse to perform on a local morning news show. Laura Patterson, executive director of the Youth Orchestra, says it's a haven for the children.
"We're providing them with role models and a safe space to come and let out positive energy," Patterson said. "And you know what? They also get to have fun."
The music staff comprises volunteers from the music department at UNO, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and local musicians.
"We have a staff of really wonderful teachers," said Patterson. "The kids love them and they love music, and a lot of them can't get enough of it."
All Souls' program is the brainchild of the Rev. Lionel Wright, the church's former pastor. The former owner of five McDonald's franchises in the New Orleans area, Wright started the program in 2009 with help from Trinity Wall Street Episcopal Church, Trinity Episcopal Church in New Orleans, St. James Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge and St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal churches in Dallas.
He's big on teaching kids healthier eating habits and thinks it's an important enrichment exercise for the kids.
"We had a summer camp teaching kids how to grow vegetables and make a fresh salad," Wright said. They loved it and ate every bit of it!"
Dr. Kevin Huddleston, director of mission and outreach at St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Dallas, came here to help renovate the All Souls building with Wright in its early stages. He believes that having Wright and the center is a huge thing for the Lower 9.
"They have someone who understands the community, and he's not willing to let them (have) a victim mentality," said Huddleston.
Wright gathered volunteers from St. Alvin's Episcopal Church of Ohio and students from Marquette University after the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana struck a deal with Walgreens.
"Walgreens agreed to let us rent the building for $2 a year for 10 years," Wright said. "They also agreed to give us the opportunity to purchase the building at a favorable price after 10 years."
Huddleston points to Wright's work ethic.
"This guy has more energy than any human being alive," Huddleston said. "He's 72, looks 52, and acts like he's 22!"
'You see their whole world open up'
Wright, a 9th Ward resident before Hurricane Katrina, is committed to improving the quality of life in his old neighborhood.
"There has to be a new paradigm here, and that paradigm starts with knowledge," Wright said. "That's what kids are getting here through our enrichment programs."
The music program is part of the Harmony Project of New Orleans and is modeled after their Los Angeles organization. It has had enormous success using music to help nearly 1,500 kids become better students. Margaret Martin, who runs the project in Los Angeles, received the Citizens Medal in 2011 from President Barack Obama for her work with that program.
She sees the value of having these types of after-school programs for children living in less wealthy neighborhoods.
"After spending about six months with them, you see their whole world open up. Our program is working in communities all across America with about 95 percent of the students graduating high school and going to college."
Even with that type of success, programs like this still have to raise money and continue the programs without help from bigger educational institutions.
"We're thinking about having car washes and bake sales to help raise money for the programs," Yang said. "I don't think people out there realize how much money it takes to run both programs and offer it for free."
Although that fund-raising takes time and effort, Martin says they're keeping them going.
"The programs are committing to the kids at a younger age," Martin said. "They want to learn everything and learn it now."
Huddleston echoes the same message. He saw the after-school program at St. Michael's transform students in a low-income area of Dallas, once one of the local schools began partnering with their program.
It "was one of the worst-performing schools in Dallas, and now it's one of the best," Huddleston said.
All Souls is hoping their program can have that same effect on the children in the Lower 9th Ward.
"We want them to know that each and every teacher and volunteer loves them and wants them to do well," Yang said. "We want to see them grow and become responsible adults."
Prescotte Stokes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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