SS/HS Grantee Rises to the Occasion
When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita swept through the Gulf Coast last year, tens of thousands of families were forced to flee the devastating hurricanes. Nearby Lafayette, LA, joined other cities from across the United States in extending their goodwill to the people forced to relocate in the wake of the storms. As their community grew exponentially in the days before and after the storms, Lafayette’s Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS) initiative and their partners pulled together to welcome the new arrivals and minimize the disruption among the evacuees and the community.
“The community rallied around,” said Barbara Friedrichs, project director for the Lafayette SS/HS initiative, Lasting Partnerships. “The community response was positive from the start and from top down. This is a giving community that was focused entirely on helping others,” she added.
As the Lafayette Parish School System began enrolling 3,000 new students at a pace of 200 to 300 per day, Lasting Partnerships focused their attention on providing the new families with the items necessary to ease their rapid transition into a new community. Soon after Hurricane Katrina hit, Project Director Friedrichs sent a memo to all Lafayette Parish School System employees encouraging donations of clothing and school supplies. Staff from both Lasting Partnerships and the school system also circulated lists of needed supplies and made phone calls to the initiative’s partners appealing for their help and involvement.
Lasting Partnerships and their local partners worked with the local media to spread the word to the community about the evacuees’ needs and to disseminate information about services available to evacuees. Lafayette’s newspaper, The Daily Advertiser, was a useful avenue for providing credible and helpful information to both service providers and evacuees. Local radio and television stations conducted food and fundraising drives and established locations to collect donations of food, clothing, and school supplies.
After having their lives uprooted violently and suddenly, evacuees had other needs in addition to food, shelter, and clothing. Social workers from Lasting Partnerships set up at local shelters to register people and lend an ear to victims telling their stories. Mental health service providers worked with traumatized individuals who needed immediate help. Lasting Partnerships also provided 10 social workers to be on hand for any students who needed assistance. The social workers met regularly as a team to discuss ideas and share tips on how to help students. This give-and-take among the service providers was essential in helping the workers deal with burnout and other effects of emotional strain as they witnessed the suffering of others.
In all of their television, radio, and newspaper appearances, school leaders and staff from the SS/HS initiative constantly communicated a sense of welcome to the evacuees. This was another important part of their strategy to help ease the assimilation process for Lafayette’s newest residents. The message to evacuees that they were welcome in the schools and community was present in every aspect of the schools’ and the SS/HS initiative’s communications activities.
Faculty and staff, from the superintendent on down, carried forth the welcome message and assured families that all district services would be extended to the new students. The students also reflected this welcoming attitude as a number of the schools initiated “ambassador” programs, in which students partnered with evacuee students to show them around.
Alongside their welcome message to the evacuees, the school leadership and the Lasting Partnerships collaborative worked to reassure Lafayette’s families that the disruption in the schools would be minimal and that their children’s education would not suffer as a result of integrating the new students.
These leaders used their relationship with the local media to dispel and downplay rumors about the evacuees. For example, when covering a schoolyard fight, the media did not make special mention that a student involved was an evacuee. In letters to parents and school news bulletins, leaders from Lasting Partnerships and the Lafayette schools kept parents aware that disruptive incidents among students were being effectively addressed through a variety of means, including the programs and services offered by the SS/HS initiative.
The frenetic pace of events that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the storms has ebbed, and more than half of the school-age children that relocated to Lafayette remain in the schools. Lasting Partnerships and the Lafayette schools have shifted their focus to addressing community concerns about sharing dwindling resources with a significantly larger student body. With extensive planning and strong partnerships, the schools and the other members of the Lasting Partnerships collaborative will find the needed staff and space to continue providing services to the increased student population. The collaborative will also continue its communications strategy, demonstrating to parents via the local media and direct communication that resources are available and being used effectively.
The community institutions behind Lafayette’s Lasting Partnerships SS/HS initiative believe that by maintaining the spirit of goodwill that fueled their response to the hurricanes, they can meet future challenges successfully.