Katrina's stormwaters have long since receded, but the damage they left remains: Neighborhoods virtually untouched since the storm. A surge of crime. Economic hardship.
Such factors have fueled a sense of despair that directly and indirectly touches New Orleans' most vulnerable citizens--its children. Domestic violence, substance abuse, broken families and the loss of neighborhood and friends are still a part of daily life for many children.
In the wake of Katrina, school seemed like the perfect place to meet the emotional needs of the city's students, says psychologist Douglas Walker, PhD, the clinical director of Mercy Family Center, a New Orleans outpatient behavioral clinic. Working with Catholic Charities, Save the Children and the think tank RAND Corp., Walker developed Project Fleur-de-lis™, a three-tiered system designed to deliver best practices to children at all levels of trauma that involves teachers and family members and, ultimately, the community.
"The trinity of recovery after a disaster like Katrina is re-establishing homes, jobs and schools," he says.
To date 55 schools--Catholic, public, public charter and private--are enrolled in the program. It starts with the first "tier," school-wide workshops for teachers and parents that address topics such as trauma symptoms children may still be experiencing, coping with anxiety about future hurricane seasons and stress-management techniques.
The second tier helps children who need more focused interventions. Trained counselors and social workers use small group settings to teach relaxation skills, ways to challenge upsetting thoughts, social problem-solving skills and help them find ways to process their traumatic memories and grief.
In the third tier, counselors meet with individual students and refer any who need more counseling, psychoeducational testing, family therapy or other services.
The Algiers Charter School Association--which was formed to help serve the needs of children two months after the hurricane--was among the first to implement Project Fleur-de-lis™. As soon as the doors opened, teachers, administrators and counselors were focused on addressing general trauma needs but also on spotting individual problems and keep them from escalating.
"In many ways, the kids were probably stronger than their families, because they have that natural resiliency," says Kevin Guitterrez, the chief academic officer at the Algiers Charter Schools Association. "But at the same time, once you did a little digging, things really came pouring out."
The result, Guitterrez says, has been an environment that in some ways is a sanctuary for students.
"The kids feel that they are safe--that they are in a secure environment with adults who care, that they can trust."