The effort that was to become the Community Initiatives Foundation (CIF) about a year after the storm, began the morning after the storm in the River Center, the public arena that was the largest receiving venue in Baton Rouge for Katrina evacuees. Recognizing the catastrophic nature of the storm and the expertise of a retired high school principal who was heading an effort to promote systems change in the public schools, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation (BRAF) president asked her to become an advocate for the displaced children. Additional funds from another foundation enabled the retired principal to hire an assistant and focus entirely on the evacuee children.
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Over the course of about six weeks in the Center, the CIF director helped organize services for both the children and their traumatized parents. She worked with a colleague from the charter school system and the state department of education to create a modular charter schoola small school for the younger children and one for the older children. The intention was to use displaced teachers from New Orleans, try to hire the best, and give the schools back to New Orleans when neighborhoods had been restored. The model was never implemented because of other rivalries between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
When the River Center was closed, many of those remaining were bused to Renaissance Village in Baker, north of Baton Rouge, the largest FEMA trailer park in Louisiana. At its height, the park housed 595 families. As many as 2,000 people quickly overwhelmed FEMA, and the need for a complex combination of services that would have to be provided by others was obvious. CIF became a facilitator to receive services from the authorities, including FEMA; a collaborator with other professionals, including foundations and university-based efforts to develop or leverage funding and health, mental health, housing, and case management services; and a direct provider, in effect a case manager and trusted confidante, for individual children and families.
In Renaissance Village, CIF worked with several large donors and local and national nonprofit organizations to set up a range of services and access assistance from public agencies. As time went on, some of the most distressed children and families were understood to be near homeless as resettlement became increasingly elusive.
Signs of trauma in the children persisted. In the second year, only about a third attended regular school, some not resilient enough to get on the bus each day. About 120 children came intermittently to on-site service providers. As families remained, dysfunction amplified, and many were increasingly unable to find new housing or return to their homes, find jobs, or otherwise reclaim their lives and families. CIF formed a consortium with the Coalition for the Homeless and Family Road of Greater Baton Rouge to resettle evacuees, using $1.2 million of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds that the Coalition was administering. The consortium would provide continuing services for more than 200 households that faced severe challenges to successful resettlement as they relocated to precarious or temporary situations. At the time of the site visit, the Coalition had hired two housing specialists who were working to locate affordable housing options in the Baton Rouge area for these individuals.
CIF was the consistent presence, at times the critical source of information and order among disparate players, and often the linchpin among public authorities and a mix of national and local experts who came to provide assistance, among them the efforts of Rosie ODonnells foundation to build a service center for children, which ultimately housed a Head Start and Early Head Start program operated by the YWCA; teams of art therapists from Los Angeles funded initially by the ODonnell foundation who came every 67 weeks for a total of nine times and worked with the children for a week to 10 days; Paul Newmans Hole in the Wall Gang, which ran camps over holidays and school vacations; scholars in child trauma from Yale University who trained clinicians and advised BRAF and others providing services; Big Buddy, which provided after-school services; Catholic Charities case manager teams funded by the Louisiana Family Recovery Corps and Katrina Aid Today (KAT); and outside clinicians providing psychological assessments and other services to support childrens school attendance.
Initial funding to work in the River Center came from BRAF. BRAF did not typically focus on direct services, so in September 2006, it provided $100,000 in seed money to set up CIF, and that money permitted absorption of a $1 million grant from another foundationCIFs largest single source of direct funds. The creation of CIF became the means for its director to expand her sphere of influence within the park and with individuals whom she has continued to assist directly.
As of July 2008, CIF staff and partners were continuing to work directly with families, providing funds for rent or to reach a potential job opportunity, access to furniture and other household provisions, scoping out transitional and permanent housing, and following these individuals and families through the exigencies of resettlement.