A Welcome Back to School

United States, October 4, 2005

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    Students at a Head Start program in Robert, Louisiana excitedly receive Comfort Kits from Mercy Corps. Photo: David Shafer/Mercy Corps Photo:

Classes began in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana this week, but teachers who returned to work there weren't comparing notes on their summer vacations.

In the wake of two devastating hurricanes that have left 47,000 people homeless in this state, the teachers had more pressing matters to discuss on Monday: damaged homes, evacuated families and the frayed nerves of returning children.

Many had not seen their colleagues since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast more than a month ago. As a result, their hugs carried more force than before; their voices crackled with emotion.

One teacher worried that FEMA wouldn't approve of the way her husband had wired a generator to their trailer. Another one cheered her first hot shower in 36 days.

The Mercy Corps team helped make the difficult day just a little bit easier by delivering supplies for students and teachers, both in the school district and the Head Start program. The infrastructures of both systems were badly damaged by Katrina.

More than 2,000 pre-K Comfort Kits and 90 Teacher's Kits were delivered to the Regina Coeli Child Development Center in Robert, Louisiana. From there, the materials were driven by school bus to the 15 facilities that comprise the Head Start program.

Rebecca McCann, director of the center, said that her site has absorbed 17 children displaced by the hurricane, bringing the total number of kids to 62. She's impressed by the resilience of the children she deals with, but doesn't doubt that they have been stressed by the disruptions of the last month.

"We have a lot of 'cryers' right now," she said, "They just seem to have extra needs."

At St. Tammany Parish School District's Instructional Technology Center in nearby Mandeville, the Mercy Corps team unloaded another 900 Comfort Kits and 40 Teacher's Kits. The materials will be delivered in the coming days to 39 elementary schools in the district.

Virginia Kelly, the pre-K resource liaison for the district, said that the teachers' materials - whiteboards, flip charts, easels, ring binders, construction paper, pens and calendars - were sorely needed in the district.

"We have staff here who sort through piles of their own belongings and then have to come to work," she said.

The materials are part of a broader Mercy Corps program called Comfort for Kids. The program aims to provide psychosocial support to both students and teachers in schools still reeling from Katrina.

Kelly, who evacuated with her family to Birmingham after the hurricane, said that students in school districts like hers will need psychological support in the wake of the tragedy. State funding for such programs, she noted, had been cut even before Katrina.

"Obviously, this has just exacerbated the mental health issues," she said. "We're at our breaking point."