New Orleans, La. –
A prayer was the appropriate finale for a ceremony welcoming Gentilly resident Janetta Mistretta back into her home. After all, for her to finally move out of a FEMA trailer and back into her own house with her children seemed nothing short of a miracle.
This ceremony came just days before the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures that wrecked her home. Janetta's family had been displaced for very close to six years. She'd been ripped off by various contractors over that time, and even had her car stolen. As the years ticked past and troubles mounted, she was out of money and short on options.
"I was faced with living in a FEMA trailer, and the thoughts, the looks, and the reality of getting back into my house were gone," Mistretta says.
But then she found the St. Paul's Homecoming Center, a unique nonprofit formed in the wake of Katrina by St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Lakeview. It gets people back into their homes by marshalling volunteers and donations and putting case managers on the job to direct the overall effort for the long haul.
"It really is the command central hub, for the neighborhood for recovery," says executive director Connie Uddo. "As we saw Lakeview really coming along, we looked at our neighbor Gentilly, and seeing the progress and struggles Gentilly was having, we made the decision to move the center to Gentilly in January 2009."
Here they found many of the same issues Lakeview residents faced, but on a larger scale. And, as time went on and boarded-up houses lingered, the recovery cases grew more complex, as outreach manager Kathy Randoph explains.
"We still have people that's out there displaced, living with relatives, and just don't have a clue how they're going to get back in their house," she says. "Just depressed, don't know what to do, don't know which way is up. And they need someone to hold their hand while they recover."
To address complex needs, the Homecoming Center has evolved into a community center of sorts, helping fill neighborhood needs lacking since Katrina. For instance, the center runs computer classes where school kids show seniors how to connect with the online world, and the group's regular bingo nights are now a hit for residents looking for social interaction with their neighbors. Most of all though, this group works doggedly, one-on-one to remove whatever obstacles are still keeping displaced Gentilly residents from coming back.
For Janetta Mistretta, getting back under her own roof was a life-changer, and she'll never forget the relief she experienced on that first night when she was truly back home.
"And all of a sudden it was like someone had just squeezed the air of me and just let it go and it was this big big woosh and out," she says. "And the tears just started falling. And it was like this unbelievable feeling that I cannot put into words."
Learn more about the St. Paul's Homecoming Center online or by calling 504-644-4125.