|Neighborhood house assists Katrina survivors|
Bonita Jethro (center), a Hurricane Katrina evacuee from New
Orleans, visits Shirley Ellington and Bill Kreeb, staff with the Lessie
Bates Davis Neighborhood House in East St. Louis, Ill. UMNS photos
courtesy of Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House.
By Susan J. Meister*
March 7, 2008 | EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. (UMNS)
Bonita Jethro was born and raised in East St. Louis and remembered Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House from her childhood.
As an adult, she started a new life in New Orleans. "It was a great
move for me," she said. "I was a head baker for Piccadilly Restaurant
for 14 years."
Then Hurricane Katrina blew in, sending Jethro back to the city of
her youth. She encountered the Neighborhood House again—but this time as
a ministry reaching out and assisting survivors of the hurricane.
The house is a national mission institution of The United Methodist
Church. It also is one of 12 organizations in nine states that received
grassroots grants from the Emergency Services Office of the United
Methodist Committee on Relief to assist Hurricane Katrina survivors
across the United States. About $2.3 million was available for the
hurricane recovery grants due to the generosity of United Methodists.
"The Neighborhood House offers a prime example of an existing
community-based ministry that stretched itself to do effective disaster
response," said Tom Hazelwood, UMCOR’s domestic disaster response
"The ministry has a nearly 100-year history of assisting families in
the Metro East area. So when Katrina survivors began to arrive, they
were ready and willing to step in with short-term relief services and
case management for long-term recovery."
Ministry greets survivors
The Neighborhood House specializes in social, economic and
neighborhood development services aimed at meeting the special needs of
children, families and the elderly in East St. Louis and St. Clair
When Katrina hit landfall on Aug. 29, 2005, the agency began to raise
funds and collect items to send to those affected on the Gulf Coast. But
the staff quickly realized that the disaster was arriving in their own
backyard. Jethro and many other families were evacuating to a familiar
Denita Jacox (right) helped evacuees Dominic Hawkins
and Dranesta Moore find housing, furniture and other essentials when
they arrived in East St. Louis.
"Within a week, we became aware that hundreds of individuals and
families were coming up from Louisiana and Mississippi to stay with
family and friends here," said William Kreeb, executive director. "That
presented a problem. The majority of the families that were providing
emergency housing for their relatives were already living below the
poverty line themselves."
Neighborhood House staff quickly shifted their focus and joined with
other churches and agencies to form the St. Clair County Disaster Relief
Coalition. "The families we met didn’t come through the local airports,
where state and local disaster relief organizations had time to plan
and put services in place," Kreeb said. "Our folks came by car or van or
bus, at all hours of the day. There was no way to know how many
families who needed services were coming or when. We just had to be
Denita Jacox and other staff members took the lead in providing
emergency transportation, food, clothing and shelter until the families
could connect with FEMA and other governmental organizations.
Moving from relief to recovery
After the initial emergency phase, it became clear that survivors
would require assistance in pursuing long-term solutions to re-establish
their lives and find permanency and stability within Illinois
communities. The UMCOR grassroots grant provided the ministry with
resources to help move families into recovery.
In October 2005, Shirley Ellington joined the staff at Neighborhood
House as its Hurricane Katrina coordinator. She joined ongoing efforts
to connect survivors with direct services and began to network with
other agencies on a long-term response.
"The Neighborhood House offers a prime
example of an existing community-based ministry that stretched itself to
do effective disaster response." –Tom Hazelwood"The
biggest challenge the survivors faced was finding jobs in this area,"
Ellington said. "They came from a tourist/agricultural mindset to an
industrial/corporate job market. They needed education and job skills.
The people also dealt with a lot of depression."
Ellington and other Neighborhood House staff members tenaciously
reached out into the neighborhoods to find and assist survivors. Jethro
was impressed that the agency knocked on her door and asked, "What are
"And they reminded us, 'You are not alone.' And they are still there for us," she said.
Jethro is doing well after facing some serious health issues since
last September and is raising three grandchildren, ages 12, 13 and 14.
Her older son Greg is in culinary school at the local community college,
funded through Neighborhood House.
Ellington reported that 500 individuals and families were assisted by the ministry.
Ellington approached long-term recovery with survivors through the
case management model, a family-by-family, problem-solving approach
advocated and perfected by UMCOR and other agencies over years of
This approach encourages each family to write and implement its own
recovery plan. Case managers walk alongside the family to help negotiate
the labyrinth of paperwork for insurance and government services and to
access other resources.
Case managers also offer a caring presence to individuals and
families during the difficult process of recovery. The spiritual and
emotional help they provide sometimes far outweighs the financial
This was true for Donna Meyers, who affectionately referred to herself and Ellington as "the boohoo crew."
"It is humbling to be on the receiving side," Meyers said. "I really worried about everything. Shirley was someone to talk to."
Meyers’ husband’s business in Louisiana was destroyed. The family
left their homes and came to the Metro East area because "it was a
10-hour drive (to a niece’s home) instead of 19-hour drive to Ohio."
She, her husband, her two teenage children, her mother and her
mother-in-law thought they would only be in town for a week, but
Ellington and the Neighborhood House stepped in to help the family find a
house. They helped pay for Meyers to be recertified to work as a nurse
in Illinois and helped with paperwork and other financial challenges.
"Shirley has been such a blessing," she said. "Without her, I don’t think I would have made it."
*Meister is the domestic disaster response correspondent for UMCOR.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or email@example.com.
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