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Compassionate Listening Project Project in the Gulf Coast

Barb Lehner, Sarita Lief and Nancy Arthur, all participants in the 2006 Compassionate Listening Advanced Training, traveled to Louisiana this past April. The purpose of the trip was to follow up with people they had met with earlier in the year and to lay the ground for the first Compassionate Listening delegations to the Gulf Coast, planned for April 2008. They spent two days in Lake Charles in Southwest Louisiana, an area spared by Hurricane Katrina but hit head-on a month later by Hurricane Rita. We’ve included Nancy Arthur’s reflections on the trip below, published in the most recent CLP newsletter. For information on how to join this CLP project, keep reading!

Rita’s damage was caused by wind, with storm surge near the Gulf. Because roofs were not promptly repaired, houses that were otherwise undamaged by the hurricane itself now require extensive repair, even total gutting due to rain and mold. We listened to case managers with the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), some of whom are Rita survivors themselves. We also listened to some UMCOR clients. Throughout, we were struck by their strong sense of community, faith, and their deep gratitude for all the volunteers who have come from around the country to assist them.

In Lake Charles we stayed at the Volunteer Housing Center, which is a story unto itself. The resourcefulness of the people who created and staff the Center, which houses volunteers for no charge, is nothing short of remarkable, and demonstrates the survivor-spirit of the entire region.

In New Orleans we deepened our connections with people we had met on our first trip last Fall. We met with Althea Fontenot, Director of UMCOR case managers, and spent time with Fred Franke, director of Operation Nehemiah, a United Church of Christ non-profit that partners with organizations to rebuild houses as well as people’s lives. We visited Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian, Mississippi, where we witnessed the effects of a 35-foot storm surge that washed 8 miles inland over these communities.

Our week of listening and learning was full, enlightening, and moving. Here are some facts that convey the ongoing challenges for New Orleans and the Gulf region:

* The typical incidence of post-traumatic stress syndrome in a community one year after a tragedy-such as tornado, flood or school shooting-is 8% of the residents. One year after Katrina, the rate of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in New Orleans was 48%. By January, 2007 it was 55%. (This statistic is from Louisiana State University’s Post-Hurricane Katrina Community Survey.)

* Before Katrina there were 450 psychiatric beds in New Orleans. Today there are 80.

* In November2005 the state of Louisiana took over all New Orleans public schools under Act 35. Schools labeled “low achieving” or “failing” became part of the new Recovery School District (RSD). Forty percent of the high school students in the RSD are unattended minors, who are living in the city without adult supervision.

* If all the contractors in the state of Mississippi began today to rebuild their coastal communities to restore them to their pre-Katrina state, it is estimated that the work would take 55 years to complete.

Our future work in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast will continue and expand, combining volunteer assistance with Compassionate Listening. We are now planning two delegations to New Orleans in April 2008. The first, the week of Sun. April 13, will concentrate on the health care situation in New Orleans. The next delegation the following week will focus on the schools, and the post-Katrina challenges in rebuilding: dispersed staff, destroyed buildings, increased crime and violence, and a high level of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among children and adults. Anyone interested in participating, please contact Nancy Arthur at chilepaz@msn.com.

For those who cannot travel to the Gulf, another opportunity to volunteer is the Care Calls project. This pilot program connects callers trained in Compassionate Listening and the current situation on the ground on the Gulf Coast with clients of the United Methodist Church Disaster Recovery Ministry who are on the open pending case list, awaiting a case manager to coordinate help in rebuilding their homes and lives. The first Care Calls group was organized by Carol Hwoschinsky and Pam Derby in Ashland, OR. There are now groups in Western Massachusetts, Springfield, Il, and Fort Collins, CO. Callers offer listening support and long-distance caring and connection to hurricane survivors, reflecting their values, strengths, and resources.

For more information about Care Calls or the next training session, please contact Barb Lehner at blehner@comcast.net.

Amy Lang is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the University of British Columbia. She wrote her dissertation on British Columbia’s groundbreaking Citizens’ Assembly process, and is currently doing follow-up research on the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly.

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