Cover Story

In the Mix

Social service providers try to integrate New Orleans' young evacuees at FEMA's Renaissance Village into activities and schools, but many kids just want to go home.

On a humid Wednesday in June at Renaissance Village, a sprawling park of some 500 FEMA trailers and about 1,500 New Orleans evacuees in Baker, 10 miles outside Baton Rouge, a large tent lights up with floor lamps and a string of Christmas lights shaped like hot red peppers. Teenage boys skulk around the perimeter waiting for an open-mic event in which the children of the village perform. Loud music, a mix of hip-hop and old-school R&B, pumps out of a speaker system hooked up to a laptop computer as residents slowly filter over.

Children cluster together on gray metal chairs, the letters REN spray-painted on the back of each one. As the performers begin ' most of them teenage boys rapping in intricate cycles over thumping bass ' the youngest children watch, captivated.

It's the last in a series of open-mic nights planned by Elyne Kahn, a New England native who originally came to the area last November with the Association of Hole in the Wall camps, an organization that primarily works with very ill children in camp settings. He conceived open-mic night as a way of reaching out to older children who seemed to lack activities that would help them interact with others.

Helping the children of Renaissance Village assimilate into their new environment has been the focus of a number of social services groups in and around Baton Rouge, with activities organized every week. While the children seem hungry for diversions, they haven't been quick to adopt their new lodgings as home, and many are reluctant to settle into schools or embrace new communities.

An example of that sentiment among the Renaissance kids came on the Friday before Mardi Gras, a time when anticipation of the long weekend's parties and parades peaks among children and adults. A dozen elementary and middle school children swarmed the tent at Renaissance Village on a wet, raw afternoon. The kids darted in and out of the rain, their fingers covered in sequins and glue, as a group of art therapists from Southern California doled out supplies and peppered the kids with questions as they moved from table to table.

"Is that a boat you're painting?" one asked. "A river?"

One little girl, an 8-year-old who calls New Orleans home, worked on a single piece for more than an hour, applying brown plastic King Cake babies with layers of hot glue to a glossy sheet of cardboard. One of the therapists wrangled the glue gun out of her hand.

"You're too young to use this," she said. "Now, tell me about all these babies."

The little girl glared and folded a second sheet of cardboard over her work. "They mad," she said. The therapist hot glued the second sheet in place. "It looks like they're in a tent, too," the therapist noted.

The little girl shook her head. "They're all your babies. They staring at you and you staring at them and you shocked at how they look. You afraid."

The therapist reminded the girl to make sure she signed a release form so her piece could be flown to California and displayed in a show for people miles and miles away. The next day, her piece was already gone, packed away and out of reach.

Scores of social service providers have descended on Renaissance Village, and its youngest residents have received plenty of attention, albeit inconsistent, from well-meaning outsiders. Now an alliance of local youth agencies serving Greater Baton Rouge wants to change that pattern, shifting the emphasis away from outside help to community-based, ongoing services. It's a formidable effort fraught with complex questions of how to meld local and displaced populations to create a climate best able to serve the needs of all children.

The two main strategies at work, while very different from one another, come from a spirit of innovative collaboration that the youth workers involved hope will reach as many kids as possible. From busing local and displaced children to integrated program sites across the city to planning sustainable, regular programming onsite at Renaissance Village, Baton Rouge has risen to the challenge of how to connect these new residents into a larger youth community.

As made clear by a recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which ranked Louisiana 49th in the country for overall service to youth, this commitment to young people is needed more than ever for all children.

Big Buddy, a local mentoring agency, spearheaded youth programming efforts post-Katrina with its partner agency, Boys and Girls Club, with additional support from outside donors and organizations such as Save the Children and the Academic Distinction Fund. Since last fall, they've served thousands of children in after-school enrichment programs and special holiday camps that are continuing this summer. The camp programs integrate youth from different schools, blurring the lines between local and displaced kids.

The focus here is not on bringing services to youth but on actively bringing youth to the services and strengthening existing programs for all the children of Baton Rouge so as not to single out evacuees in an ultimately short-sighted vision of community involvement.

Big Buddy's Executive Director Gaylynne Mack says she doesn't like going out to Renaissance Village.

"Let's just say it doesn't hold much nostalgia for me," she laughs, flashing her trademark smile before turning deadly serious. "What we need is permanent housing; we need a long-term plan. Programmatically, we're worrying about the fall and the spring now. These kids are going to be here. People can't believe it. They're like, 'You're busing them all across the city?' Well, yes we are! It gets them out into the community. Renaissance Village is too isolated. It's just not an appropriate place for youth development."

Nearly 1,000 students attend the summer program run by both Big Buddy and the Boys and Girls Club. Of that number, about a quarter of the children qualify as "displaced" on the enrollment forms, though the office staff at Big Buddy says that number is increasing all the time. According to Carlos Daniels, director of program operations at the Boys and Girls Club, many of the displaced families put off registering for summer camp in hopes of a return to New Orleans.

"It was a rude awakening for some," says Daniels, "but a large number are settling in and realizing that, at least for a couple years, they're not going home."

Derrick Robertson, program director for Big Buddy's growing middle-school program, says he's seen a shift happen in the way the combined groups relate to each other.

"They're really unifying and coming together now," says Robertson. "For our first holiday camp over Thanksgiving, there were definitely some clear boundaries between the children. We just sat down and really talked about it and now [in the summer program], they just all blend together."

The divisions aren't simply between local and displaced, as Daniels noticed in the months immediately following the storm. Kids at the Scottlandville school, reopened solely for displaced youth, would get into arguments over New Orleans neighborhoods, pitting ward against ward, reflecting an attachment to the neighborhoods they call home. Now, even months later, there are still lingering tensions, though it's getting more difficult to sort out everyday childhood cruelty from hurricane-related conflict.

On a recent morning at Big Buddy's main office on Main Street in Baton Rouge, Mack, more commonly known as Ms. Gay, gets a call on her cell phone before going out to visit the program sites. It's a call about a child being teased at the camp.

"I need names," she interrupts, then nods and closes the phone with a sigh. "If I could just take one thing away, it would be the teasing. It is just so damaging."

She flags Robertson in the hallway to tell him about the problem; the child is a middle-schooler and attends camp at one of the sites he supervises. He promises to make the calls, waving his own cell phone in the air, which often alerts callers that its mailbox is full. Robertson moves with a frenetic energy, managing programming for hundreds of children at several sites and commanding respect with an effective mix of strict expectations and warm, one-on-one interactions. He's busier now, but clearly energized by the increased capacity of the program.

"By pooling our resources we're programmatically strengthened," Robertson says. "We're reaching a wider scope of children, and overall we're bigger, better, greater. It's the best summer ever. Anywhere."

The partnership between Big Buddy and Boys and Girls Club has been adamant about not earmarking funding and programming solely for displaced children. From the very beginning, they've been clear about the benefits of mixing the groups to reduce the kind of prejudices that have grown easily in a place like Baton Rouge, whose population temporarily doubled from the strain of evacuated New Orleanians. But while reducing tension between local and displaced children is a huge accomplishment, the initial plan was pretty simple: keep the kids occupied.

"A week after the storm hit, there was a huge influx of people in shelters," says Daniels. "We identified a large group of kids that just didn't have anything to do, which is when Mack and Pat VanBurkleo, our executive director at Boys and Girls Club, collaborated to form a group and go out there and provide some entertainment.

"Parents were trying to locate relatives and find housing, and our main focus was taking those kids off their hands for six to seven hours a day."

From there, the agencies continued to support New Orleans youth and each other. When the Scottlandville school reopened (it had been closed down and slated for renovation) to accommodate the new students, staffers from both organizations helped children transition from the shelter to the classroom, literally shaking cots and making sure parents knew where their kids were headed. They acted as teacher aides in the classroom, teaching 45-minute lessons to give the teachers, displaced themselves, a much needed break.

"We realized from the beginning who had which strengths," says Mack. "And we have just jumped ' both agencies ' we have really exceeded what we were capable of doing.

"I am so thankful to this partnership. Being the lead agencies that serve youth, our focus has just been, let's concentrate and get the job done. It's not about turf. It's not about fighting over whose kids are whose. There are still kids out there not being served, so it just can't be about that."

Those kids ' displaced New Orleanians existing under the social services radar ' represent a huge population of those affected by the hurricane. Many still lack the basics of permanent shelter and schooling, let alone health care and stable work. Recent figures estimate around 200,000 people still live in temporary housing statewide, with a significant percentage living in FEMA trailers. The number of those children and families still "off the map" is staggering. The New York Times reported in early June that only 190 of the 560 evacuated children who enrolled in the Baker school system were still attending at the close of the year. Particularly vulnerable are older children and adolescents; the lack of structure feeds the intense social isolation many of them feel, and much of the programming, onsite and otherwise, targets young children.

Kahn, who arrived from New England last November, witnessed this gap first-hand during his time spent working with youth at Renaissance Village. He helped make connections with local organizations like Big Buddy and Boys and Girls Club and provided direct service at the park, running a holiday camp for the children late last year.

"When the site first opened," he says, "Boys and Girls Club went out there and ran through eight weeks of programming in two hours. Someone would show up with materials, and it would just get devoured. At that point, really any distraction would do."

But the distractions were primarily geared toward 6- to 12-year-olds, leaving adolescents ' a difficult population to connect with in almost any context ' relatively isolated from structured programming in an ever-shifting social strata of displaced strangers.

While puzzling over ways to positively impact the teens at the park, Kahn began making recordings of some of the younger children he was working with, inviting them to tell stories, sing songs, or recite their own poetry. He burned CDs of the informal sessions and passed them out to the kids involved.

"Then, a slightly older group of boys started asking when they could record," he says. "They were excited, but I knew I couldn't go out there and do a recording initiative on my own. I needed some support."

He talked to Anna West and Chancelier "Xero" Skidmore, two performance poets who run Big Buddy's new teen poetry program, Wordplay, along with volunteers from Americorps' Citi Year, who had committed to spending four evenings a week at Renaissance Village.

The project was originally conceived as a series of writing workshops, with, as Kahn puts it, "the carrot of recording" promised once the workshops were completed. While similar programming facilitated by West and Skidmore has been wildly successful in school settings, it never took off out at the park.

"We rounded up a small group of teens, really our target group, and had the first session to let them know what was happening and told them to come back the next week. Only a few did." Younger children came, not quite ready for classes in metaphor or MC battling skills, but still hungry as ever for activities to occupy them. What emerged then was a collaborative open-mic series, which Kahn records. It doesn't engage teens as directly, but it does give them a creative outlet and provides a rare entertainment opportunity for all members of Renaissance Village to celebrate the resources existing within the park.

"I am happy people are out there trying to make things better," says Mack, and she considers the work Kahn has done with Hole in the Wall ' including local staff development ' a "tremendous" initiative that has strengthened her agencies' efforts. For his part, Kahn, who originally planned to leave the area this summer, has decided to extend his stay, renewing his commitment to this area and to the teen community.

"There are a whole lot of kids in Baton Rouge, displaced or not, who need these opportunities," says Kahn, who reports he's seen a real progression among his fellow youth workers in responding to the unique circumstances facing the area's children.

"I think we have changed a lot more than [the youth] have," he says. "It's all about making connections and building on each other's successes."

Within the next year, Kahn plans to work with Sister Judith Brun, a Catholic nun who has been working to help residents take advantage of what services are available at Renaissance Village, to create an alternative education program to address the rampant truancy.

"I don't think anything that we've done so far has been sustainable," Kahn says of the Renaissance Village initiatives. "I want to make something that is."

Fostering sustainability in a community with an 18-month lifespan is no easy task, but with the support from local organizations (he's submitted a grant proposal in collaboration with Big Buddy), success might be closer than many would expect. The plan includes an on-site teen center with regular drop-in hours, plus a program combining mentoring with job skills, possible GED classes and transportation to off-site activities. While this idea of service is markedly different from the philosophy informing Big Buddy's approach, they share a focus on filling the gaps in service by leveraging strengths to most effectively benefit all youth, while remaining aware of the greater transformation happening in Baton Rouge.

"For the first couple months, [Renaissance Village] was what we entirely focused on. There was a great need there for positive and creative engagement with youth," says Kahn. "Then I realized that the need isn't just at Renaissance Village. There was this need all over the place."

The open-mic nights at Renaissance Village filled one of the needs. As the last scheduled session started, residents meandered over to the village tent. Like most public happenings at Renaissance Village, there is a loosely organized feel to the proceedings, which vary widely from week to week.

While Kahn says he's seen the children of the park mellow in certain ways ' they're more capable of staying attentive and focused ' he fears it has less to do with them getting comfortable and more with them turning inward.

"I believe many of the adults are tending toward depression," he says. "I hope that the perceived calmness is not an indication of the same thing in the kids."

Recent studies by the Children's Health Fund and LSU, among others, show Kahn's fears may be right on target. But, on this night at least, the mood is buoyant.

During a brief intermission, Skidmore announces a poetry contest, and Anna West passes out index cards with writing prompts at a table in the back. The winner, a slight girl who has to be called back into the tent to collect her prize ' a $25 gift certificate to Wal-Mart ' writes about perception and poverty, the poem's elegance belying the five minutes it took her to write it. The room cheers, and West encourages the crowd to sign up for free transportation, provided by Big Buddy, to the next Fresh Heat, a monthly teen poetry slam held in Baton Rouge. With the list of performers eventually exhausted, the open mic winds slowly to a close.

The future for displaced children remains uncertain ' in Baton Rouge, in New Orleans, in Lafayette and countless other cities where evacuated families remain in limbo ' but there is hope, and certainly resilience, in the struggle to meet and make visible their needs.

At Renaissance Village, residents slowly disperse as Kahn packs up his sound equipment. Some children linger to help move chairs, but gradually the tent empties and the lights click off. The darkness stretches past rows of trailers, and from a distance comes the sound of children laughing, barely heard and not quite seen.