As southeast Louisiana grapples with the lasting impact of hurricanes and the toll of the oil disaster, Options for Independence is helping people in coastal communities cope with the changes and challenges.
Ever since the BP oil spill in 2010, Kevin Champagne has been working on recovery, though that work isn’t about cleaning up oil. It’s about helping the people in the disaster’s wake deal with the challenges it brought to their doorstep.
“What we’re seeing is that there is stress,” Champagne says. “Even though the impact of the oil spill might not still be there as far as oil on the beaches and things like that, there’s still stress.”
“We’ll see fishermen who may have been fishing for five generations, now not wanting their children to do that. So, there’s a loss of culture that we’re seeing,” he says. “I think our communities are resilient, but at some point and time there is a breaking point.”
Champagne is health services director of Options for Independence, a nonprofit based in Houma that helps people avoid that breaking point. Founded in 1992, its social services are broad and diverse, from enabling disabled adults to live on their own to offering family counseling for youth. This range of services, and the number of people served, have both increased dramatically in recent years as southeast Louisiana grapples with the lasting impact of hurricanes and the toll of the oil disaster.
“You do see a lot of anger, substance abuse, domestic violence, those types of things,” says Rebecca Hoffman-Spears, a social worker and director of adult services at Options for Independence.
She says some of the people most in need of assistance, and most severely impacted by recent disasters, live in isolated communities and are often reluctant to ask for help. Options for Independence reaches out with programs designed to make a tangible difference in their lives.
“So it’s teaching people actual skills that they can use, and it’s also connecting them with real life resources,” she says. “It’s trying to connect them with longer-term treatment options that they may have and making those connections for them where they feel safe and not stigmatized because they’re having to try and access those resources.”
Options for Independence is also helping people retool their careers for the future.
“We’ve noticed that one of the best things we can do, it was to help bring income into the household,” Champagne explains. “So we partnered with local industry, with the local vocational/technical schools and with the local economic development agencies to develop a training program. It gives them certifications to go to a job immediately and not take a long time to obtain that.”
The group also developed an e-commerce site, www.theGulfCoastMarketplace.org, where people from coastal Louisiana can sell hand-crafted products and advertise services, like fishing charters, all aimed at helping local families weather tough times. Overarching all of this work, though, is the effort to let people in famously -- sometimes fiercely -- independent Louisiana communities know that people are ready to help them.
“It’s okay to get help,” says Hoffman-Spears. “With the long-term stigma, that’s probably the hardest thing to overcome. But at some point, we all need support.”