From basic needs to lasting friendships – a true place of community
After Hurricane Katrina, literally thousands of people from all over the world descended upon New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish to help. They started by passing out food and meals, and they continue to this day with rebuilding and beautification projects. One of those people was Iray Nabatoff. A New Hampshire native, he came to St. Bernard in January, 2006 with the intent to stay for 18 days as a volunteer providing hot meals at the Made with Love Cafe. And, like many people, our beautiful state got inside of him, so he never left. Soon he realized that, while help was (and still is) needed to rebuild, new issues were becoming evident. Many of the people who returned to St. Bernard Parish spent all of their money on rebuilding, which left very little left over for food, utilities, and other basic needs.
Some St. Bernard residents had insurance to pay for repairs to their homes, but it didn’t cover all of them or the additional expenses that arose. Some had to use the proceeds to pay off their mortgages, since they had gotten behind on their payments when they had to evacuate. Since their homes weren’t habitable, some had to pay rent in addition to their mortgage payments. Often the costs of repairs exceeded their insurance coverage. Add the extra ingredients of our current economy and unemployment due to the oil spill, and we see that there is a lot of need out there that will last long after homes have been repaired.
So, in 2006 Iray came up with the idea to create the Community Center of St. Bernard. The Center, located on 1107 Lebeau Street in Arabi, provides the types of assistance that are becoming more and more necessary. They have a food pantry; they offer free clothing and household items; they provide computer and financial literacy classes, and they also partner with other agencies to provide even more services. On the day I visited, there were representatives there from the Jefferson Council on Aging, the Red Cross, and OCS workers were there taking applications for food stamps and other assistance. There were also some students from Nobles School in Boston, who support the Center regularly, who were in town planting flowers around the building.
The Center was created to provide whatever people need through any services or donations that people or organizations are willing to offer. St. Anna’s arrives regularly with their mobile van to provide medical services. One person offers yoga classes, someone else is offering after school tutoring. Iray uses a concept called “Community Connect,” which means that instead of having the Center bear the expense of meeting every need, they partner with other agencies who come to the Center to provide services. This means that the amount of services that are available is unlimited – whatever agency or individual is willing to come and share their services is welcome to do so.
The Center provides basic necessities, but they also are mindful that they are a community center, so they offer many fun events for everyone to come together. On the day I visited, they were having a free dinner dance with live music. They have bingo nights and other events where people can come together to forget their troubles and just have fun.
Around 88% of the clients who are served at the Community Center are St. Bernard residents. Another 12% have no known address or come from other areas of Greater New Orleans. When I arrived at the Center, it was full of people waiting for various services – the waiting room for the food stamp applications was packed, and several people were waiting to use the phone, fax machines and computers. One client, Allen Kimble, told me that he goes to the center three times per week. He runs a small business, but doesn’t have a computer at home, so he uses the computer at the facility.
Last year the community center served 5500 individuals with food, clothing, meals and other services. They used to provide laundry services and hot meals every day, but since they lost some of their space, they had to cut back on some services. They have very little space now, and they have placed a few trailers on the property to try to create more room. The clothing and household items tables are outside. Every inch of the place is used for something.
In addition to having very limited space, the Center is located next to a railroad track. During the time I was there (around 2 hours) at least 4 trains noisily passed by, shaking the trailers and interrupting conversations. While they are grateful for any space, they are hoping to move to a new space that is much larger, where they can increase their services to include hot meals, a Head Start program, and on site medical exams. They have a location picked out and are hoping for enough funds to be able to purchase or lease it and do the necessary renovations.
Iray started the community center with nothing but an idea, and somehow he makes it work from day to day. He receives donations and some grant money, but it is never enough. He is the Executive Director of the Center – he works hard and has a lot of responsibilities, but he has never been able to take a salary. He is still living in the same borrowed trailer he started living in in 2006 when everyone had FEMA trailers. A few members of the staff receive a small salary, because it takes a reliable group of people to organize the food pantry. Now that space is so limited, it is necessary for people to make appointments to come to pick up the food so that the Center does not become overly crowded.
The Center is open to offering whatever services people are willing to provide. They have had back pack giveaways; they have provided holiday food baskets and hot Thanksgiving meals; they created a St. Joseph Altar that fed 600 families; they had a book giveaway where they succeeded in giving away 20,000 books; the SBA has come to help with small business loans; they have worked with the Hispanic Apostolate, and they help with evacuation assistance for special needs people. They have also partnered with agencies and individuals offering tax assistance, road home assistance, and legal aid. They are open to providing whatever services people are willing to donate to the center.
How can you help? If you have any skills that you would like to offer – legal advice, tax assistance, after school tutoring, exercise classes, or if you’d like to plan a party or offer a meal – those are just a few service opportunities – perhaps you have some ideas of your own. You can also donate – computers, food, clothing, small household items, or provide financial assistance.
In my short time at the center I met some wonderful people. If you serve there, you will not just be providing much needed assistance; you will also become a part of a community that is friendly and loving.
Would you like to offer your time, talent or other donations to the Community Center of St. Bernard? Contact them at:Community Center of St. Bernard 1107 LeBeau St. Arabi, LA 70032 504-281-2512 email@example.com www.ccstb.org.