(WOMENSENEWS)–Long before it became obvious that no government-sponsored cavalry was coming to help after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, women stepped in to engineer solutions to the problems facing female survivors of the Gulf Coast.
They are reopening child care centers closed by Katrina, defending low-income homes from eradication by city redevelopment plans, building health clinics for women and keeping stranded people in touch with community services and larger agencies.
"Leadership on the ground is critical to the recovery process," says Christine Grumm, president of the San Francisco-based Women’s Funding Network, a national advocacy organization coordinating funding for more than 100 women’s funds around the world.
The New York-based Ms. Foundation for Women and the Women’s Funding Network issued a report today which concludes that while women have taken on significant leadership roles on local levels, their voices remain largely absent from policy debates and planning.
"Post-Katrina women survivors have determined to take matters into their own hands when it comes to resuscitating their devastated communities," says the report. "The importance of supporting women’s solutions, opportunities and well-being is imperative for a recovery that reverses some of the Gulf Coast’s longstanding inequalities and hardships."
Working in conjunction with partners and donors including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Mich., the network sprang into action in the days after Katrina to help fund and coordinate efforts of seven women’s funds, which in turn are granting money to dozens of grassroots women’s groups.
"What displaced mothers needed was a sense of calm and organization, and they jumped into action," says Ruby Bright, executive director of the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis, about the women the fund assisted.
The Memphis foundation created an intake form to assess families’ needs beyond basic shelter and food and brought together local service providers; they continue to coordinate computer and job training programs and to meet with local government officials to streamline efforts aiding more than 1,000 displaced families in the area.
"The recovery process takes time and needs to reflect the goal of self sufficiency," says Bright. "There are people in this country who live their Katrina every day because of poverty and social marginalization, and this recovery could be a vehicle for real social change."
Beautician Stands Her Ground
When Katrina destroyed both Sharon Hanshaw’s home and her business–a beauty salon she’d owned for 21 years–abandoning Biloxi, Miss., never entered her mind.
"You have to stay and fight through whatever comes," says the 52-year-old mother of three daughters and grandmother of two. "This is my family’s home, their future, and you want them to be proud of the community, of where they live."
Hanshaw’s beauty salon remains closed and she is living in a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Driven by the knowledge that those most vulnerable to effects of the storm–the poor, women and children–were underrepresented, Hanshaw helped form locally based Coastal Women for Change at a January meeting and became the executive director. The group was organized by national relief agencies to examine women’s concerns, primarily housing, jobs, health and child care.
"Here we are a year later, living in FEMA trailers, and they are focused on building casinos," Hanshaw says. "We have people displaced who can’t come home because there is simply no place for them to stay."
From five original volunteers, the group has grown to over 75 women who have hosted community forums and conducted door-to-door surveys to zero in on the critical issues facing residents of East Biloxi, where Katrina damaged 80 percent of homes.
The women traveled to Washington to push for voting rights and housing and met with policy makers, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Locally, they demanded spots on the mayor’s 15-seat planning commission, five of which they now hold, to have a stake in the rebuilding effort.
"People want to do something, but there are so many issues, it gets overwhelming. So you have to make a plan and take it one problem at a time," Hanshaw says.
Child Care Provider Rebuilds
Carol Burnett is focused on the problem of child care.
"Child care is a major need," says Burnett, who in 1998 founded the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Coalition, a statewide nonprofit advocating for subsidized child care. "Many parents cannot work without it and the sector was just devastated. People need to work, to rebuild, now more than ever."
In Mississippi annual costs for child care, averaging $3,380 per child, exceed the average annual tuition of $2,872 at a public state university.
Over 3,000 licensed child care centers in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana suffered damage during Katrina and Rita; the overwhelming majority remain closed. In New Orleans parish, for example, of the 266 centers that operated before the storm only 52 had reopened by July.
During the storm and its aftermath, Burnett’s group lost eight of the nine buildings it had used to provide services to about 1,000 children.
Its applications to FEMA for aid were denied. Burnett put out a call for volunteers; local citizens, faith-based groups and volunteers from other parts of the country who’d come down to help Katrina recovery efforts responded.
Volunteers last spring gutted the lone surviving building and repairs are now underway. Burnett hopes the center will reopen in January thanks to contributions from individuals, faith-based groups and grants from organizations including UNICEF and the Kellogg Foundation through the Women’s Funding Network. A church in North Carolina has offered to contribute the construction of a playground.
To replace the other losses, Burnett’s group is collecting funds and resources to build a new early childhood learning center it hopes to open next year.
Advocate Focuses on Health Care
Shana Griffin, a New Orleans resident, is focused on a struggle for better health care.
"If we don’t fight, nobody will," says Griffin, a coordinator for the New Orleans chapter of Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, a national group that promotes direct action and grassroots movements to end violence.
In pre-storm New Orleans, 66 percent of uninsured residents used Charity Hospital and its clinics for health care. A year after the storm the clinics are still closed.
Incite! New Orleans plans to open a comprehensive women’s health clinic in late September or early October and is also working on a resource center for women of color, containing a library, meeting rooms and a computer cluster, to open toward the end of the year.
The clinic will provide basic medical examinations and testing, prenatal and post-natal care, birth control, risk reduction and counseling services. There will also be educational materials on violence, sexually transmitted diseases, menopause and pregnancy available to women.
Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Buffalo, N.Y., who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International and the London Sunday Times during time spent in the Balkans, the Middle East and South Asia.
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